Becoming Others: Enacting the Transness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
Hannah Bonner on the Utopian Future of Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography
Orlando, a Political Biography will be screening at the 2nd annual Refocus Film Festival, a four-day celebration of the art of adaptation and hosted by Iowa City’s nonprofit cinema, FilmScene. Refocus Film Festival will take place in Iowa City October 12-15, 2023. Passes are on sale now, with individual tickets and full festival announcements coming in September.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes Big Ben’s punctuation of the hours as “irrevocable.” For a post-World War I London, sanctioned time marches on: stately and evenly paced. However, for the protagonists of Woolf’s fictions, time shimmers: refractive, elusive, and phantasmagoric as the act of writing itself, endlessly prone to inspiration and subsequent revision with the passing of years. Specifically, for Orlando, in Woolf’s eponymous titled book, time, gender, and the act of writing become both inextricably linked and trans: ever ongoing, moving across and beyond binaries with unbridled delight. And yet, the topic of Orlando’s body as a trans body has never been so culturally or cinematically underscored until Paul B. Preciado’s documentary Orlando, My Political Biography (2023) premiered at Berlinale this year.
Best known for his auto-theory, Preciado recurrently merges gender, sex, and authorship on the page, including in Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, where he writes, “I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me, so that I can write, fuck, feel a form of pleasure that is postpornographic.” Preciado thwarts preconceived notions of trans bodies’ relationship to, and engagement with, pharmacology. Trans identity is understood as neither heteronormative nor hegemonic—it is the experience of “sexual plasticity,” living, and creating that Preciado celebrates in both his written work and in his film debut.
Preciado’s film is not solely a retelling of Woolf’s story; it is also about Preciado’s experience as a trans man navigating state apparatuses.
Preciado’s documentary proceeds Sally Potter’s 1992 feminist feature film, heretofore the only screen adaptation of Woolf’s novel. Gorgeously shot and staged, the mise-en-scene in Potter’s film is as florid as Woolf’s prose. As Woolf writes, “images…of the most extreme and extravagant twine and twist in [the audience’s] mind.” To wit, when Orlando (played by Tilda Swinton) is told she will wind up a spinster, she gathers the cerulean hem of her dress before rushing into a maze. Potter’s camera chases Orlando as she darts repeatedly out of the frame, unable to be contained by the camera or by her culture.
But the film (like Woolf’s novel) maintains a strict binary: Orlando is a man and then Orlando is a woman. Potter, through wardrobe choices and heterosexual courtship, does not present, as Woolf writes, “a whirligig state of mind.” As Weston Richey writes about Potter’s film, “Orlando does not arc toward transness as salvific, symbolic, or rich with meaning. Instead, the movie’s performance of elusiveness demonstrates the shallowness of gender variance, the empty space where meaning should be.” Ergo, Potter presents a restrictive vision of identity, whereas Preciado’s is multivalent.
Preciado’s film is not solely a retelling of Woolf’s story; it is also about Preciado’s experience as a trans man navigating state apparatuses, such as psychiatry and pharmacology, which systematically inflict violence and erasure on bodies that are not cis, male, middle-class, or white. In the spirit of performative, self-reflexive documentaries like Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet (2017) and Ruth Beckermann’s Mutzenbacher (2022), Preciado’s film is a meta-commentary on its own making, just as Woolf’s novel is as much about the act of writing a biography as it is the story of Orlando’s life. We see multiple trans actors auditioning for, or acting the part of, Orlando. In between reading aloud from Woolf’s book, they also share their own histories with and hopes for dating, hormones, clothing, surgery, and utopian futures. One, a high school student, remembers his first crush as various crew members change the set design and lighting behind him. Culled from a panoply of voices and perspectives, Orlando, My Political Biography champions the ways in which writing is an inherently communal act. As Preciado says in voiceover, “Every individual life is a collective history.”
Early in Orlando, Woolf writes that “every good biographer detests” that “riot and confusion of passions and emotions” that Preciado’s “collective history” might foster. “Our simple duty,” Woolf continues, “is to state the facts as far as they are known, and so let the reader make of them what he may.” While Potter’s mise-en-scene conveys a riotous passion of colors and textures, Preciado’s talking head interviews foreground multiple iterations of trans peoples’ embodied existence. To be sure, the ambition and aims of both films are vastly different. Both belong to their times, and both, like prisms, shine their own specific lights on Woolf’s scintillating prose.Preciado’s film enacts the goals of Woolf’s novel that the book itself fails to enact.
But if we consider artistic creations as living, breathing entities, as we must consider (and materially care for and listen to) the interiorities of non-binary bodies, then Preciado’s film feels closest to Woolf’s ethos regarding artistic practice. When Orlando rereads her Oak Tree manuscript, it, as Woolf writes, “began…beating as if it were a living thing…It wanted to be read. It must be read.” So too does Preciado formally and narratively center living bodies that want to—and must—be heard in our political climate which is particularly pernicious to, and pathologizing of, trans bodies.
As Oscar Rosza Miller, one of the many actors playing Orlando, says,
“I don’t want to choose one thing or another, I want to be able to make an explosive mix…what I like to call passages of my life, are epochs. Life is not at all like a biography. It is not a series of episodes or sentimental adventures or descriptive scenes or even the servitude of daily existence. But it consists in the metamorphosis of oneself, letting oneself be transformed by time, becoming not only other, but others.”
Orlando, My Political Biography gives time and language to that “explosive mix” and liminal space of gender, narrative, selves, and spirit that Woolf’s text ultimately elides. Preciado’s film enacts the goals of Woolf’s novel that the book itself fails to enact, perhaps because Woolf, though queer, could not (or would not) conceive of the psychic, physical, and political remonstration of trans bodies by governmental and medical institutions.
And yet, these contemporary critiques of Woolf’s novel do not diminish its preeminence as one of the most pleasurable books about writing, creating, and biography. Furthermore, if Woolf’s novel is a relic from the past which we have used as a reference, inspiration, or stepping stone for conversations about identity, gender, and sexuality, then Preciado’s film is ultimately a utopian future. In the finale, all the Orlandos gather together in a courthouse where a judge, played by Virginie Despentes, grants them new government identifications. One by one they accept their names and genders exactly as they, and they alone, would like them to be. The atmosphere is euphoric, celebratory, and unabashedly fun. The hours forward are no longer irrevocable, leaden circles maintaining the status quo, but revelatory. As Preciado writes in Countersexual Manifesto, “we are the revolution that is already taking place.”