Death. Love. Poetry. Politics. Society. Sex. Birth. These are the visual chapters of Sally Potter’s enchanting third feature Orlando. A loose adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name, the Tilda Swinton-starring, gender-bending film is an adaptation in the fullest sense of the word. Taking Woolf’s abstract and satirical writing, Potter changes and reworks her source material in order to create a film that is not simply a retelling of Woolf’s story, but an addition to, a conversation with, the author’s satirical feminist work.
While Potter’s Orlando emits more superficiality than its 20th-century source material, largely due to the fact Potter works in a visual form and Woolf a written one, the film still manages to touch on the novel’s key concerns (albeit with the help of Woolf’s witty prose). The film’s aforementioned seven chapters neatly divide these concerns. Death introduces Orlando to life, while the closing chapter, Birth, ends the film.
Presented in white text against a black background, these single-word title cards give structure to Orlando’s formless narrative story. A heroine (or hero) that doesn’t conform to gender, Orlando’s life lacks any sense of linearity. Her story begins and ends with love, with the eponymous character not so much moving with time as instead observing it. Potter’s title cards also indicate the year Orlando is in, this time-driven information intended as an aside to the prominent theme that takes place. The time is expressed in the set design or the mise-en-scène, while the theme is sculpted by Swinton, the camera, and Potter’s script.
The director makes apparent the film’s sense of observation, as well as Orlando’s detachment from time. Not only does Swinton’s direct address serve as a visual substitute for Woolf’s first-person speaker (the camera being the narrative voice), but it acts as an early Tim-from-The Office kind of narrative device, in which the viewer is reminded of the divide between Orlando and her setting. As Andrew Pulver notes, this breaking of the fourth wall is an “adventurous […] aside” that portrays Woolf’s “habit of directly addressing the reader.” And while this direct address is also an extension of Woolf’s wit (Swinton’s glances at the camera often seem wry), the technique’s most prevalent advantage is that it allows the viewer to journey inside of Orlando.
Speaking with Moving Image Source, Swinton talks of her fascination with the “disparity between the outside and the inside.” The actress says, “It’s hard enough knowing one’s own thoughts, feelings, and history and future; but even beginning to imagine that one might have a fantasy that one might know somebody else – I’ve always found that very interesting that there is this fantasy, there is this myth that we can know each other. And I’ve never really believed it. At the same time, I’m a great believer in the attempt to at least negotiate with mutual unknown-ness.” As Orlando changes gender from man to woman, the outside rearranges itself while the inside stays the same.
What Swinton calls a “mutual unknown-ness,” meanwhile, manifests itself in the hero/heroine’s inherent loneliness. All Orlando has to accompany her are memories, and it’s these memories that Potter uses to “stitch together” her film’s narrative. As Woolf writes, “It has contrived that the whole assortment shall be stitched together by a single thread. Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after.”
For Swinton and Potter, however, the direct address also holds more of a connective role. “However many centuries Orlando was passing through,” says the actress, “however historical a figure he or she might feel, actually, he or she was absolutely right there in the present moment and very available and very modern and contemporary.” Through her work with legendary British artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, Swinton began questioning her relationship to the camera. The actress continues this in Orlando, exploring the role of the act of looking and of being looked at.
Viewers are also able to connect with the film through its light tone. Swinton’s male Orlando is more feminine than just androgynous; Orlando’s first outfit as a woman is a comically elaborate crinoline; and while Potter references works included in Woolf’s text (for example, Othello), the director plays with time and includes anachronisms not to be found in the source material; William Blake’s 1804 poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (latterly the song ‘Jerusalem’) is referred to as early as the 1700s.
Nevertheless, it’s these fun additions that add to the film’s depth. Through Swinton, and indeed Quentin Crisp in the role of Elizabeth I, Potter asks viewers to both overlook as well as question femininity and masculinity’s relation to identity. The crinoline has always been a paradoxical fascination for Victorian scholars. The wide, stiff cage both limits a woman’s movements as well as forcing her to occupy more space.
Orlando‘s closing chapter is titled ‘Birth’. The titular character now has a daughter, while Orlando herself sits by the same tree under which she began her centuries-long poem. Her daughter films the world around her while Orlando watches. With one last look to the camera, Orlando gazes directly at her audience. The protagonist has found her time at last.