Thursday, August 27, 2009

orlando, by sally potter

When we last convened, we watched Brand Upon The Brain!, a film deeply fascinated with the mystique that androgyny, er, engenders. From there, it wasn't much of a leap to Sally Potter's Orlando, from 1992, a film for which gender (and the conturbations surrounding gender expectations) are even more central.

In this particular film, androgyny is embodied in the form of Tilda Swinton, playing the title character, an effeminate young man in the during the 17th century. Swinton's always excellent, and it should surprise no one that she's utterly striking in this role:

This strikingness—the strikingness of Swinton's / Orlando's androgyny—is not just there to delight the audience: it is, in fact, the motive force for the entire narrative, For it is Orlando's beauty that attracts the attention, of Queen Elizabeth I (played, in a sly bit of casting, by Quentin Crisp):

And it is Elizabeth's attention (perhaps envy) that causes her, like some folk-tale gypsy, to place a benediction / curse on Orlando: specifically, that his beauty shall never fade. This has the effect of eliminating Orlando's aging process, effectively converting him into an immortal. And Orlando's progress through the centuries thus comes to form the armature upon which film's narrative is structured, following him through various historical episodes, including an entertaining comic stint as a political ambassador in North Africa:

But the movie has a lot more up its sleeve than simply being a collection of entertaining episodes through history. What follows is a spoiler, I suppose, although it's also a major component of the movie's conceptual thrust, and there's virtually no writing on the film (including the Netflix summary-blurb) that doesn't reveal it. Perhaps it's best to just say it simply: halfway through the film Orlando's biological sex changes. "He" simply wakes up one morning and discovers "himself" newly female.

Many of us would likely be alarmed by such a development, but Orlando takes it completely in stride, declaring "Same person. No change at all. Just a different sex." This puts the film pretty squarely in line with contemporary theorists and medical professionals—beginning with John Money and Anke Ehrhardt in 1972—who distinguish between sex and gender, with "sex" referencing the anatomical apparatus of a given individual and "gender" referencing the performance (or lack thereof) of certain sets of social behaviors associated culturally with one's sex. Orlando has changed sex, but initially she seems determined to carry on as before—to proceed with the performance of an essentially androgynous gender.

In a perfect world, this might have been possible, but in our world (as theorists like Judith Butler or Mia Consalvo have pointed out), an individual's ability to "author" one's own gender is constrained by institutional and ideological practices. This is true today and is, of course, no less true in the early 1700s, when Orlando undergoes this transition. Put another way: she may want to stay the same, but social norms of the time demand that women engage in a very different set of performances:

Watching Swinton navigate around in an unwieldy dress is good for a laugh, but institutional practices involving gender don't simply begin and end with the strictures of fashion, and before long Orlando is learning that they are reflected and codified in the practice of law. At this point, things grow deadly serious, specifically around the issue of whether it is legitimate for the transformed Orlando to retain property.

The film's great merit, ultimately, comes from the way it represents, in very pointed fashion, the rather diabolical repressive network that emerges when state networks use sex as a justification for regulating gender performance and legal status. It may, however, lack the force of some its convictions: it refuses, for instance. to represent what would be the likely result of the wrath of this repressive network coming down on Orlando with the full brunt of its ideological force. But maybe that's to the good: I'd rather watch the scene we're given, including a lovely one of Tilda Swinton and Billy Zane indulging in post-coital snuggling—

—than watch a scene wherein Orlando dies a penniless Dickensian death in the gutter. Asking why that might be is a question I don't intend to meditate on today. Instead, I'll point out that, happily, Swinton's post-Orlando career has been pretty sunny: loads of films, from Michael Clayton to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, seem to have supporting roles that are well-suited for a "Tilda Swinton type." But I haven't seen her as the lead in a film since this one. This is the situation I intend to rectify with next week's pick, Julia, a 2009 crime drama in which she plays the title character.

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