A century from publication, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography is still in vogue. Just before the pandemic, Tilda Swinton––who played Orlando in Sally Potter’s landmark film 30 years ago––curated a photography exhibition for Aperture inspired by the novel. Early last year, Megan Fernandes had Woolf’s text in mind when she wrote her eulogy for Roe vs Wade. More recently, theater director Neil Bartlett took a new adaptation to the West End, casting non-binary performer Emma Corrin in the title role. For a while, Potter’s adaptation seemed like the last word on Orlando, but Woolf’s story only grows more relevant (and more malleable) as each generation claims it for themselves.
In her review of Bartlett’s play, the theater critic Helen Shaw wrote that the novel “slots into the current gender discourse with a nearly audible click.” Enter Paul B. Preciado, the celebrated French author of Testo Junkie and An Apartment on Uranus, and one of the most revered voices in that discourse. Orlando, My Political Biography, Preciado’s new work––and his first behind the camera––is the latest to tackle Woolf’s text and surely one of the most original to do so. It’s structured as both a correspondence—messages from the writer to Woolf—and a series of kaleidoscopic vignettes starring trans and non-binary people. In various ways––deeply heartfelt, often funny, occasionally repetitive but never less than joyous––the performers speak about their relationship with the text through personal experiences while, in voiceover, Preciado distills a life spent grappling with the novel (both as intrepid reader and discerning academic) into a poetic and philosophical treatise, providing a robust foundation for the more earnest emotions onscreen.
In Woolf’s story (which was somewhat inspired by the aristocratic history of her lover Vita Sackville-West), a male-born nobleman during the reign of Elisabeth I mysteriously changes gender at age 30. (In one of the most famous paragraphs, Woolf casually switches from using the pronoun “he” to “they,” and eventually “she.”) The character then lives on for three centuries without showing any signs of wear and tear, moving across the globe and encountering a hit list of literary giants. Preciado imagines that timespan through 26 people of varying identities, ages (from 8 to 70), races, and nationalities (though mostly French), each dressed in endearingly slapdash period costumes (including a nice dog). Almost every person introduces themselves as playing “the role of Orlando” before reading or performing a segment of text.
The earliest takes place in a forest (there is a lovely shot of one Orlando making out with a tree). Another plays out in a doctor’s office––a stand-in for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth in the novel––where one Orlando comes in for a consultation while the others hang out in the waiting room, popping hormone pills and having a party (the scene features one of a few solid original tunes). In another lightly comic sequence set in an operating room, text from the book is removed via scalpel. There’s a great moment in a gun shop with one Orlando trading an antique rifle for a taxidermy fox. In the loveliest scene, two teenagers act out a snowy meet-cute between Orlando and Sasha in gorgeous close-up. Near the end, the author Virginie Despentes appears as a judge, and so forth and so on.
As scenes roll by a punky and refreshingly hopeful manifesto takes shape. “Bodies are political fictions,” Preciado notes in one voiceover. In another he explains to Woolf that her story has become a reality. Speaking on the Film Comment podcast the day after its premiere, the formidable B. Ruby Rich went as far as to call Preciado’s uncategorizable film “the first trans masterpiece.” Only time will tell.
Orlando, My Political Biography played at Thessaloniki International Film Festival and will be released by Sideshow and Janus Films.