Female Filmmaker Friday: Orlando, 1992 (dir. Sally Potter)

We’re entering the third month of the Female Filmmaker Friday feature. I hope I have introduced y’all to some great cinema and hope to keep doing for a long time! The more I read about the abysmal numbers of women behind the scenes in cinema, the more I realize we need to rally around the few who have gotten to make films, make them as well-known as their male contemporaries and ignite a spark in the younger generation of women to carry the torch and not give up. If I help in that in any way, I will. That said, this week I am writing about Sally Potter’s Orlando, which I just saw for a first time a few weeks back. I used to own the Virginia Woolf book on which it is based, but somehow never read it.


It’s a really fabulous film and I am sort of glad I saw it when I did because I was ready for it now. There’s a great quote (by Neil Gaiman I think) about how people find books when they are ready for them; I feel the same way about cinema. I came to some movies too early and disliked them, only to rediscover them when I was older and ready for them. That’s how I feel about this brilliant film. I know I won’t be able to do it justice with one little piece about it, but I will try. I first wanted to point out these two conflicting posters. In the first one, we have Tilda in bed with Billy Zane and it emphasizes sex. In the second one, we have Tilda clearly glad in make garb, emphasizes the gender play in the film. This movie is 99% Tilda Swinton (Billy Zane is seriously in it for about ten minutes) and there is only ONE sex scene. If I ever meet Sally Potter, the first thing I am going to do is ask her if she was forced into the first poster, as it is such a misrepresentation of what the film is about. But hey, sex sells, right?


There’s going to be some spoilers in this piece, just so you know. The film starts out with Orlando as a young boy in Elizabethan England. The narrator talks about all the desirable characteristics a young boy could have at that time – shockingly they are very similar to what modern society cherishes in young girls. We already have this playful look at the fluidity of gender and desire. We also get the first of many times Orland looks directly into the camera, connecting with the audience, pulling you into the story.


Potter also uses a lot of close-ups on Tilda’s face; she is the center focus of this story and Potter never lets us forget it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many close-ups outside of Studio Era Hollywood film before. I think it’s a great technique and shows you what Potter’s is interested in – this character. It’s all about Orlando, Orlando’s thoughts, Orlando’s feelings, Orlando’s life.


In other wonderfully subversive jab at gender policing, Potter casts Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I, who has a creepy, predator-like interest in young Orlando. She tells the boy, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”, and if he does, she will leave him an estate and he will be set up for life. It’s at this moment in the story that Orlando magically stops aging.


The story then begins to jump centuries ahead. Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, who later it turns out was flirting for flirting’s sake, and leaves him without a word one day. During this segment, Potter explores jealously, heartbreak, betrayal and a whole slough of emotions. There’s a wonderful scene where the heartbroken Orlando sleeps for a three whole days straight. It is his coming of age.


He then takes a position in Constantinople, where he learns many things about life, but ultimately becomes traumatized by man’s lack of compassion for any who is not like himself. We get more gender-play, as diplomat Orlando wears the popular frilly clothing of the era, as well as voluptuous, curly powdered wigs.


After a particularly traumatic night, Orlando awakens only to discover he is now a woman. His discovery of his now female body is so beautifully shot. Her wonder at her womanhood that has blossomed overnight is stunning. She states that it’s strange because she is exactly the same person, just a woman. There’s so many layers of feminist thought and gender equality philosophy in this one, simple scene.


She enters her womanhood right at the height of the 18th century, adopting an ultra-feminine way of dressing – large hoop skirts, flowing ruffles, tall powdered wigs. It’s during this sequence that she’s told she cannot have her property anymore because 1) she is dead and 2) she is now a woman. At this point, men come out of the woodwork offering to marry her, but she refuses and it leads to one of my favorite sequences in the film. An angry Orlando in her 18th century dress, runs through a maze and as she turns corners, her dress changes and we realize time is shifting again.


When she emerges from the maze again it appears to be the Victorian era and she meets a sea-captain named Shelmerdine. She falls in love instantly, as does he it seems. They have a brief discussion about her lot in life and then they wind up in bed together. This is Orlando’s sexual awakening. I love that the first time Orlando has sex, it is as a woman – not as man. This an amazingly positive look at the wonders of female sexuality. Afterwards, we get this scene with Billy Zane where the camera comes in close on his face – it is Orlando gazing on her conquest – and he becomes aware and self-conscious of her gaze in much the same we often see women portrayed. It’s a powerful piece of filmmaking.


Orlando has found love at last, but it is not to be and Shelmerdine must go back to sea. He’s got his dreams and she’s got her’s and sadly they do not align. What is great about this scene is that they both understand that what they had was special, but they also both understand why they must part. It’s practical and romantic at the same time. This sequence with Shelmerdine is apparently different from the source novel and I will explain why I think I like this ending (though I haven’t read the book) more later on.


Time passes again. Orlando become pregnant, stumbling throughout battlefields of all the wars from the Victorian age to present day (1990s), she gives birth. There’s so much to say about birth and death and war and motherhood and Potter links it all together so deftly. Orlando finally finishes The Oak Tree –  the book she had been working on since she was a boy and it will now be published. The publisher is actually played by the same actor who heard her first recitation of one her poems back when she was boy. I love the way Potter has Orlando dress in this last segment. It’s feminine and masculine at the same time. It’s sleek and it’s commanding; it’s the garb of someone who knows who she is and takes no bullshit. Later, we discover that Orlando has finally won her lawsuit and can have her property back.


After which, she takes a badass ride on her motorcycle with her badass daughter (played by Tilda’s real-life daughter).


The film ends with Orlando finding happiness with her child and with her accomplishments. We never see Shelmerdine again, but it doesn’t seem like Orlando minds much. In the source novel, she marries him and the book ends with her waiting for him as his ship returns. I like Potter;s ending more, because it shows Orlando reveling in her achievements, her book, her child, her life. Men were necessary in that she needed one to create a child, her publisher is a man, etc. But men do not dictate her life. She dictates her own life.

About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on March 21, 2014, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Interesting write-up. You definitely hit all the major points. I saw this for the first time in a Costume Design class. Thus we mostly analyzed the interplay of clothing and its relation to gender. Tilda Swinton was so amazingly cast in this role, her androgynous facial features give the film validity.

    Overall, it’s definitely an underappreciated film.

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