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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Orlando, My Political Biography *


Starring: Arthur, Emma Avena, Amir Baylly, Jenny Bel'Air 

Director: Paul B. Preciado

Country: France

UK Release: Picturehouse Entertainment

 

In this docu-drama social manifesto, director Preciado tells the stories of many trans identities through the lens of Virginia Woolf’s seminal novel, Orlando. With numerous trans actors playing the titular role, the story is brought to life in miniature staged vignettes alongside narrated voxpops about the reality of living in twenty-first century France as a trans person.


The novel is, of course, one of the most progressive novels from the early twentieth century, in which its time-travelling hero is born male under the reign of Elizabeth I, only to experience a change of gender as they live for three hundred years into modernity without ageing beyond 30. This ambiguity around Orlando’s gender identity is what makes the novel so seminal, but also so relevant for the modern age. Almost a century on from the book’s publication, the idea of gender fluidity is now in fruition, but for Woolf – and her girlfriend Vita Sackville-West, who was known for her experimentation with gender – this was a mere fantasy. For director Preciado, the book becomes a vessel for a visual essay and personal philosophy.


As an intellectual exercise, running this literary classic alongside testimonials is a good idea, but as a piece of cinema, it feels tremendously dense. For anyone not familiar with Woolf’s novel this would be impossible to follow, with no effort made to explain its narrative. There is no doubt that the original ‘Orlando’ was a political statement veiled in figurative imagery, but now we have an extra layer of politicisation over the top, making this a manifesto for a metaphor for a manifesto… which is clever, maybe, but also smugly adroit.


There’s no doubt that this is an intellectual gimmick. And while its visuals are pleasing and its interviews compelling, once the novelty of its format wears off, it feels like an exceptionally long piece of performance art with the director wringing the life out of its central metaphor for over ninety minutes. An overwrought academic slice of virtue-signalling, this is a very difficult film to sit through.

 

UK Release: Premiered at BFI Flare Film Festival. Wider release in cinemas 5th July 2024, released by Picturehouse Entertainment

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