Continuing with our series of “Films that are distracting me from my breakup,” we’ll be looking at the brilliant Orlando, Sally Potter’s very artsy exploration of the life and loves of a 400-year-old English noble who switches gender, which stars Tilda Swinton and some fine, FINE Vintage Billy Zane.
It was 1997, and I was at college. I first heard of Orlando through my room mate, who informed me that Paula Cole’s “I don’t want to wait” video (which was playing every 5 minutes on the radio and VH-1 that year) was based on the film. I was into gay and transgender films at the time, but as no video stores carried it I just didn’t get to see it. I kept hearing about it, and meaning to watch it, and what with one thing and another wound up with a copy and STILL futzed around.
Most people will tell you that the story is, as I wrote above, about the life lessons of a 400-year-old English noble who changes gender partway through his or her life. It is based on a Virginia Woolf novel that I haven’t read.
Having known about the premise, I watched the film and found myself a bit confused at first; as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I expected there to be some kind of explanation of the “rules” of Orlando’s existence, of why he not only lives for four centuries but switches along the path. But once I let go of the idea that the film would explain it, I understood and enjoyed myself much more.
Additionally, I didn’t think the movie about a single person, although I realize the idea of Orlando as immortal is a popular understanding of the character. Orlando seems more a living consciousness, a cosmic self-awareness that has lived on through successive generations, that is both old and jaded and also young and continually enchanted with life. Orlando seemed more like a state of mind achieved when constructs of gender are recognized for what they are: constraints. I suppose that might be at odds with the popular view of the character, and I’m not disagreeing with anyone else’s read, it was just something that occurred to me along the way.
Filmed in 1992, Orlando is a smorgasbord of late-80s/early-90s artistic conceits. A fascination with Ancien-Regime France and all the pomp and gigantic wigs therein, breaking the fourth wall, costumes, decadence, and Billy Zane. There’s even a cameo by the inestimable Quentin Crisp, whom I wrote about in this entry: The Stately Homos of Old England!
Before we get to the Billy Zane though, I really need to spend a few words talking about Tilda Swinton.
This movie, I am convinced, is still the phenomenon that it is mostly due to her luminous, warm performance. She projects a profound and quiet radiance as Orlando, like the
angel she would play later in the fun film version of Constantine (Note: I really do love Constantine but that’s a whole other post – I have been watching the show and I have read the graphic novels).
Swinton’s stately otherness has made her a fashion and film icon. She is beautiful without makeup, a rare thing, and a piece of art when she does wear it.
In the final scene, as she looks into the camera while her daughter plays nearby, she glows with hard-won joy; she has suffered to reach this calm place, and now that she’s here she’s going to enjoy it for the rest of her life.
And now to the Billy Zane.
To put it succinctly, there are a lot of hot actors in Hollywood right now, but none of them will every be Billy Zane in Orlando Hot.
GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING.
I have to confess I was deeply moved by the film, especially the ending where Orlando finds herself alone but fulfilled as a person. Probably since I once again find myself alone in life. Alone, but not lonely, if that makes any sense. The ending reminded me of another classic gay/gender politics movie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which I saw in the theater a hundred years ago.
Anyhow, Orlando is a CLASSIC film that ought to be enjoyed by anyone interested in gender politics, trans theory, costuming, or just an interesting and arresting story.
The only jarring element in the film is the song at the end: that’s not saying I don’t like it, I LOVE IT, but it’s an odd and initially offputting little ditty. I had never heard it before I saw the movie, and the final scene, while it works, is a more than a little soured by the appearance of…well, I won’t spoil it if you want to watch it, but I will link it here if you’re curious but not checking the film out anytime soon.
Orlando is not available on Instant Watch, but is available from Netflix disc service.