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Woe betide the critic trying to take notes at a screening of “Orlando, My Political Biography.” It would require the stenographic skills of a court reporter to do justice to this essay-film, written and directed by the Spanish-born philosopher Paul B. Preciado, which takes Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography” (1928) as an ur-text from which to explore trans experience, history, and politics. The novel (which Sally Potter memorably adapted for a bold and lavish film starring Tilda Swinton) tells the story of an Elizabethan nobleman who, in the seventeenth century, is transformed into a woman and, as a woman, makes her way through British society all the way into modern times. For Preciado, the novel and its central character exemplify a crucial idea—that Orlando isn’t a man who becomes a woman, but, rather, a person whose very identity is transition itself, who is a living challenge to the notion of determinate gender. Preciado, making his first film, brings that concept to life with some remarkable cinematic stagecraft.
Preciado recruits more than twenty trans and nonbinary actors (including Preciado himself) to play the role of Orlando. There are a few ensemble scenes of great dramatic impact, but the performers mainly appear successively and separately, identifying themselves by name and then stating, “In this film, I’ll be Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.” Their costuming and makeup frequently take place in real time, onscreen, with a wryly straightforward sense of anachronism. Chain mail and a ruffled collar go just fine with a T-shirt or a baseball jacket, and scenes set in a studio are presented as such—with crew members preparing a photographic backdrop of a snowy landscape and a snow machine sprinkling two actors with its artificial flakes.
Preciado lives in Paris, and most of the film is in French, including Woolf’s texts, which are delivered in translation. The performers recite passages from Woolf’s novel, and Preciado, in voice-over, comments on the book, on trans life, and on the connections between the two—in the form of a letter to Woolf. He declares his artistic intentions to her: “I find myself in the position you were in when you wanted to do Orlando’s biography. How to film the biography of a trans person today? Or, to put it another way, how to construct an Orlandoesque life, a life of a gender poet in the midst of a binary and normative society?” He adds, “I agree with you, fiction is not opposed to truth.” Bearing this principle out, Preciado also adds a documentary, quasi-journalistic element to the film, as the performers representing Orlando also speak about their lives as trans people, often at length and in detail.
The ingenuity and the profundity of “Orlando, My Political Biography” are apparent from the start, but it takes a while for the film to catch dramatic fire. The earlier part is mainly conceptual, setting up the film’s realm of ideas and its general format but remaining largely static and theoretical. The strongest early scene brings together a group of Orlandos in a psychiatrist’s office, where they seek hormone prescriptions; the scene inaugurates one of Preciado’s prime themes, the undue subjection of gender to a medical and legal—which is to say, political and politicized—order. The logic of Preciado’s conceit develops gradually, but, when it finally emerges, it does so with vast power—when the streets of present-day Paris stand in for seventeenth-century Constantinople, where Orlando’s transition took place, and when one Orlando, seeking social confirmation of their masculinity, visits a real-life arms store (wearing chain mail and comparing their appearance with that of a knight’s metal suit in the window) and shops for the weapon that will best serve their purpose.
It’s an occupational hazard for a film critic to be forced to mention the foremost modernist filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, but in “Orlando, My Political Biography” the reference is unmistakable and unavoidable. The opening credits borrow conspicuously from those of “Pierrot le Fou”; Preciado’s psychiatrist is played by the actor Frédéric Pierrot, known for his lead role in “For Ever Mozart” (and also for playing a psychiatrist in a French TV series). One of the Orlandos even says that she’s distracted from her scene by having just heard of Godard’s death. (He died on September 13, 2022.) Yet Preciado’s film is no mere homage but a statement of purpose, having as much to do with affect as form: the metafictional premise and practice of “Orlando, My Political Biography” don’t deprive the dramatic scenes of emotion but rather enrich them with the real-life feelings and experiences that each performer—and Preciado himself—expresses. The film’s earnestly playful devices approach Woolf’s “Orlando” with a sort of intellectual archeology that finds the passions and conflicts of present-day trans people reflected in Woolf’s exalted language and links their ongoing struggles to her protagonist’s heroism.
The strongest connection to Godard, however, is an elaborate expansion of a trope from his “King Lear” in which a film editor works with needle and thread. Preciado turns that notion into a far grander—and far more audacious—set piece that’s too delicious an invention to spoil. Suffice it to say that it involves a book instead of film and a surgeon’s instruments instead of a tailor’s, and that it both develops Preciado’s theme of the medicalized regime of trans life and locates its immense implications in the, um, body of Woolf’s text. This sequence is only one of several large-scale inventions in the latter part of the movie, as it brings Orlando—as Woolf’s novel does—out of the historical past and into the present day. (One key transition is Preciado’s association of two famous trans women of the nineteen-fifties, Christine Jorgensen and Coccinelle, with Woolf’s Orlando by means of his astute and moving analyses of archival news footage.)
In several of the movie’s final flourishes, the almost four-hundred-year-old Orlando is played by two older actors of immense theatrical authority, Jenny Bel’Air and Emma Avena, who are at the fore of a pair of extended scenes that blend mundane bureaucratic practicalities and overarching political philosophy in a dramatic confrontation with legal definitions of personal identity. The scenes in question—including a fervent and inspired one set in a courtroom—also evoke, as a crucial aspect of trans life, the eternal cinematic conflict of word and image. Let’s just say that, when it comes to courtroom scenes, the one in “Orlando, My Political Biography” is more deeply imagined and more thrillingly performed than any in the Cannes-winning hit “Anatomy of a Fall.” Also, because of a Marvellous pop-culture wink, a word of advice: stay through the end credits. ♦