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Nearly Three Decades Later, Sally Potter’s Orlando Is More Topical Than Ever

Nearly Three Decades Later, Sally Potter’s Orlando Is More Topical Than Ever
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Tilda Swinton in Orlando, 1992Photo: © Sony Pictures Classics / Courtesy Everett Collection

There are many reasons to watch, or resee, Sally Potter’s award-winning film, Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton and adapted by the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf. The most topical is that the book’s author is a sort of hovering spirit guide to “About Time,” the new exhibition at the Costume Institute. Quotes from Woolf’s many novels are sprinkled throughout the catalogue and specific passages from Orlando are narrated within the museum galleries by the actresses who starred in The Hours, a 2002 film that builds on Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.

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Tilda Swinton in Orlando, 1992Photo: © Sony Pictures Classics / Courtesy Everett Collection

Time is a dizzying and eternal spiral, twisting up and down between elation and despair, as Orlando discovers as they travel through 400 years of English history, from the reign of Elizabeth I to the birth of Elizabeth II. Orlando was published in 1928, a decade after women in England got the right to vote, and almost 40 years before homosexuality was legalized there, though in Woolf’s circle non-conventional pairings were the norm. The author wrote Orlando for her lover Vita Sackville-West, an aristocrat who could not inherit her beloved family estate Knole, as by law it had to pass to a male heir.

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Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane in Orlando, 1992Photo: RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Gender fluidity is the main conceit of Orlando. About halfway through the plot Orlando, born a man, falls into a deep sleep as into a chrysalis, and emerges as a woman. As she looks into the mirror and discovers her new self, Orlando murmurs: “The same person, not different at all, just a different sex.” It’s a statement that suggests that our essential beingness exists apart from gender, or its trappings. Potter implies that it is gender stereotypes, the association of masculinity and brawn, femininity and decorativeness, that are the most destructive. “Orlando’s change of sex,” she explains, “is the result of his having reached a crisis point, a crisis of masculine identity. It is Orlando’s unwillingness to conform to what is expected of him as a man that leads, within the logic of the film, to his change of sex. Later, as a woman, Orlando finds that she cannot conform to what is expected of her as a female either.” Though their gender changes, Orlando’s character remains intact.

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Tilda Swinton as Orlando, and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I, in Orlando, 1992Photo: © Sony Pictures Classics / Courtesy Everett Collection

In fashion and in society, gender fluidity is a topic that is becoming increasingly talked about. Yet what struck me most in rewatching the film in an election year notable for its vitriol and grandstanding is how stereotypes of masculinity, and its links to strength, power, and force, remain entrenched in (American) society. The bravado expected of Orlando as a man in the 17th-century seems to be on display daily in the 21st century news.

Like Woolf’s novel, “About Time,” is focused on the interrelation between past and present, and, Bolton puts it, in “drawing out the tensions between change and endurance.” Potter’s Orlando treads much the same ground. “The film ends somewhere between heaven and earth, in a place of ecstatic communion with the present moment,” the director has written.

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Tilda Swinton in Orlando, 1992Photo: RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Among the last lines of the film is this: “And ever since she let go of the past, she found her life was beginning.” This, to me, is another important takeaway for today. Neither Potter, nor her protagonist, are mired in nostalgia, defined as a longing to return to memories of rosy times past. It’s as impossible to return to those times as it is to deny their existence. Similarly, the future is but conjecture. Whether it is eternal youth we wish for, or merely to hold on to our sanity, the present must always remain in focus.

Source: vogue.com