All of Us
By Farihah Zaman

Orlando: My Political Biography
Dir. Paul B. Preciado, France, Janus/Sideshow

The first film by writer and academic Paul B. Preciado, Orlando: My Political Biography is an interpretation of and response to the seminal Virginia Woolf novel Orlando: A Biography, in which the central character lives for nearly four centuries, minimally aging but changing sex from man to woman as they try to make sense of a dizzyingly evolving world. Beyond its gender-queering content, Woolf made the inspiration of Orlando clearer for posterity by dedicating the book to her lady love of many years, Vita Sackville-West. Preciado, author of a book he describes as a “body essay” largely considered to be part of the trans literary canon titled Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, knows something about making a contribution to radical queer literature.

Even with his many accolades, however, it is deliciously ambitious of Preciado to engage in a dialogue with a text that remains so influential nearly 100 years after it was written, particularly as a more straightforward film adaptation of the novel exists, Orlando (1992), directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton. Preciado is known for challenging the status quo and academic elitism, but in a more confrontational way than Woolf’s subtler use of satire in the novel. For example, in Orlando: A Biography, Woolf approaches the physical process of gender transformation as an alchemical process that happens after a period of rest, with Orlando waking up to find they are now anatomically female. Meanwhile, Preciado contends that his own gender transformation required far more intention and labor, as is often the case.

Preciado’s cinematic vision of Orlando employs his skilled personal storytelling, as the film is framed by his narration and sometimes direct address to Woolf herself, but he is joined by several other trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive humans, who each play the role of Orlando at different stages of the story. A similar strategy was employed by Todd Haynes in his Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, but in that film the purpose of casting multiple actors was to externalize the idea that this one man has many selves. In Orlando: My Political Biography it serves to underscore the infinite diversity of those who identify as trans. Furthermore, in Preciado’s film the players are not recognizable actors by trade, and he anchors the reenactments and direct readings from the novel with the participants’ own reflections on the text and resonant experiences from their lives, allowing them to reclaim, embody, and enliven it. As the voices interweave and sometimes overlap, the work begins to transcend both the individualistic and the monolithic, and recasts Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography as the story of a community, or what could be the story of humanity, if more people were open to understanding what their trans siblings have already learned about our shared capacity for metamorphosis. When perception of trans identity by the mainstream can be so remarkably reductive, the idea of creating an expansive universe to hold many selves is one of Preciado’s many acts of political lyricism.

Aesthetically and structurally maximalist, the film weaves into the narration, reading, and documentary interview more staged set pieces, expressionistic moments of performance, a couple of musical numbers…he pulls back the curtain to show the film crew at work, and offers visual and verbal nods to the even larger family of trans people beyond those participating onscreen. He references and shows archival images of trans pioneers like Christine Jorgensen and Marsha P. Johnson, famous for her own great act of confrontation against the status quo, inciting the Stonewall riots. Preciado’s puckish drive to disrupt and interrogate crackles beneath the lush greenery and elegant costuming of the film’s opening scenes. Such a forthright, politically minded approach feels like a necessary update to the text, because it connects to the strength and struggle in trans experience, by introducing the social and historical context in which gender queered identities currently exist. And it acknowledges that while this history is marked by profound beauty and resilience, it is also a story of abuse and grief. “It is necessary to survive violence in order to tell our history,” Preciado says in the film’s voiceover, and, “it is necessary to tell our history in order to survive violence.” In dialogue with a novel that spans centuries, Preciado once again brings a sense of community, of solidarity, to the idea of traversing time.

Preciado’s voice guides us through Orlando: A Biography, expressing what the book has given his community—the ability to imagine an existence beyond what was immediately visible to many trans and queer children around the world—as well as what it overlooked. Preciado chafes against the Orlando of the novel’s white, patrician background, which protected them from greater vulnerability and harm, just as whiteness and wealth continue to provide some protection today, while black trans women experience the highest rates of violence against any one group of people. The casting of Orlando here brings many BIPOC and immigrant voices to the film, to dismantle the storytelling that might feel inaccessible to those who have grown up without the trappings of privilege. By engaging more explicitly with race and class, Preciado projects a contemporary intersectionality onto a text that is exclusively about a white, wealthy aristocrat whose questions of self and belonging may be universal but whose primary material difficulty was trying to access the land and property they owned when laws made it inaccessible to them as a newly become woman.

The way Orlando: My Political Biography plays on this aspect of the novel’s original story—how queer communities are stymied by institutional and bureaucratic systems at every turn—is one of the richest devices in the film. As the many Orlandos continue their journey, they begin to move further from the idyllic countryside and closer to many complex public spaces. The process of interpreting through a contemporary lens grows more inventive, more recognizable to modern audiences, and also more surreal. Orlando(s) depart the forest, enter a working film set, find themselves in a psychiatrist’s office trading hormones that the state denies unless patients meet their rigid definitions of trans-ness, and then a pawn shop, looking for totems that a binary-fascist culture will accept as a marker of their masculinity or femininity. Just as Woolf considered how matters of identity and sexuality have no easy place under the strict rubric of capitalist patriarchy, Preciado is interested in the ways in which the personal intersects with the state and the bureaucracies that uphold its hierarchies. The Orlandos are put through the daily indignities by doctors, lawyers, even family, of being asked to prove who they are and why they are deserving of acceptance, let alone support, in both scripted scenes and personal anecdotes.

The most notable weakness of the film is the director’s impulse to name these systems and verbalize the historical and contemporary parallels, over and over, rather than let the accumulation of such scenes speak for themselves. Yes, Preciado’s explicit intention is to be confrontationally political, the word “political” having actually been inserted into Woolf’s original title here, but there are myriad ways to do so, and the film proves its own point that sometimes unexpected, sidelong approaches such as poetry and testimony are more effective in communicating, building understanding, and eventually inciting action or at least altered behaviors in the world. All the cinematic tools that Preciado employs so artfully—the cinematography, the interviews, the production design, and more idiosyncratic choices, like showing the seams of the filmmaking—have conveyed the emotional truth and therefore the political point. Perhaps the literal invocation of these systems of oppression, exclusion, and violence are meant to serve as a kind of spell through recitation—the listing of such words as “economy” is so frequent it must be purposely repetitive as a storytelling strategy—but in practice the more pedantic narration, Preciado’s decision to intermittently summarize “the point” as it were, suspends the magic.

Words have power and it is understandable that an accomplished writer who has experienced persecution would want to wield that power in stating their case, but here, Preciado could have trusted the image as much as the word and his own efficacy as a filmmaker. Ultimately, however, the film’s intelligence and charm, its deftness in weaving so many layers into one flexible arc, leaves the more lasting impression. Preciado’s willingness to take creative risk, center his voice as the anchor for a larger chorus and luxuriate in maximalist messiness rouses all the spirited rage and joy seen in the kaleidoscope of Orlandos before us.