Berlinale 2023 review: Orlando, My Political Biography (Paul B. Preciado)

“Deeply moving and intellectually stimulating at once, this is not only a film about trans people, but more importantly, it is also one that fully embodies the trans experience in all its complexity.”

Paul B. Preciado’s terrific reworking of Orlando, the canonical 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf, features several attempts at categorization. The “biography” marker is right there in the title after all, but unlike Woolf’s original text which had the relatively neutral subtitle “A Biography,” Preciado opts to use first person and emphasize the political impulse that informs his version. Another potential category is identified early in the film when on-screen text is used to describe it as a “free adaptation.” The Berlinale, where the film premieres as a part of the Encounters section, lists it as “documentary form,” which, like the other labels, seems accurate but not quite sufficient to capture the inventiveness that distinguishes this remarkable debut. If there is one defining quality to Orlando, My Political Biography, it must be the film’s defiance of easy classification. Instead of following the codes and conventions of any established film mode, Preciado boldly bends filmic structures and freely plays with form to find an alternative way of depicting the trans experience on screen.

Preciado himself explains in the beginning that despite his love and admiration for Woolf’s work, he has issues with the novel’s protagonist, who is an aristocrat representing the British colonial power. The director accurately and effectively reinterprets Orlando as an early text on trans identity, but instead of merely celebrating this much-discussed book, he initiates a correspondence with Woolf! The artists may be a century apart, but as poignantly expressed in an early scene, “life ends long after death,” and this dialogue is much more resonant, even essential, in the contemporary world. Considering the fact that the novel covers about 300 years (without the titular character aging visibly), this dialogue across time feels like a particularly apt adaptation strategy. The duality of perspectives, an inherent aspect of the correspondence format, informs the rest of the film as each scene introduces two characters (two versions of Orlando), resulting in an impressively varied yet coherent catalogue of testimonies. There are more than 20 Orlandos credited, representing people of different ages from 8 to 70. In playful scenes that bring interviews and re-enactments together, Orlandos reflect on many different topics that range from their interactions with psychiatrists to experiences with hormone therapy or responses to Woolf’s novel.

What emerges out of this rich gallery of interpretations is a pointed critique of our societal obsession with the gender binary, the inadequacy of social structures or so-called support mechanisms, and a decades-spanning history of trans activism. Preciado identifies several elements in Woolf’s novel in relation to these themes: he comments on the ease of the metamorphosis in the book (Orlando’s change from male to female occurs smoothly during sleep) and argues that this change had to take place outside Britain, with Orlando’s displacement when he is sent as an ambassador to Istanbul (referred to as Constantinople in both the book and the film) being a key factor. Highlighting the autobiographical elements in Woolf’s work, he mentions the author’s lesbianism and affair with Vita Sackville-West. On a broader level, some of the Orlandos discuss the bureaucratic obstacles they constantly face, including issues regarding identification, naming, and paperwork. Likewise, archival footage of Christine Jorgensen’s public appearances is effectively used to illustrate the historical erasure of trans or non-binary individuals.

While biographies often tend to prioritize a singular point of view, this particular take on Orlando is refreshingly decentralized. This is a collective biography, equally attuned to the specificity of personal experiences and the commonalities that emerge from multiple recollections. All actors introduce themselves when they first appear on screen, emphasizing their selfhood and reminding the audience about the collaborative nature of the work. In addition to the high number of Orlandos and their introductions, Preciado’s constantly shape-shifting mise-en-scène also contributes to this plurality of perspectives. The location in each scene is transformed in one way or another, often resulting in unpredictable courses of action. A particularly humorous example of this is a sequence that starts in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office and evolves into a musical interlude as the room morphs into a disco! Some of the re-enactments are staged in ways that highlight similar transformations of space, with camera movements gradually revealing how painted backgrounds change or lighting is stepped up. Another clever scene near the end of the film presents the cold operating room of a hospital in a completely unexpected way.

Considering Preciado’s work as a philosopher, the stature of the source novel, and the conceptual density of the film, Orlando, My Political Biography may seem overly academic or intimidating at first. But this accomplished work of creative non-fiction is marked by compassion, humanism, and honesty above all else. Rather than any scholarly pretension, the unusual flexibility of the film’s form is more closely linked to Preciado’s search for an authentic, inherently non-binary paradigm. Deeply moving and intellectually stimulating at once, this is not only a film about trans people, but more importantly, it is also one that fully embodies the trans experience in all its complexity.

(c) Image copyright: Les Films du Poisson