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http://sydney.edu.au/arts/publications/philament/issue3_Commentary_Roussos.

htm
An off-beat adaptation: Orlando
Timotheos Roussos
"He - for there could be no doubt of his sex - though the fashion of the time did something to
disguise it."[1] So begins Virginia Woolf's rather unusual novel Orlando. Sexual confusion and
ambiguity is a main theme. The first line in both the novel and Sally Potter's film version gives a
clear indication that the story will play with conventions of sexuality.[2] And even though the film
begins in the same way, it is less successful in leaving no doubt about Orlando's sex. Tilda Swinton
does a good job portraying Orlando, but is still too feminine to be entirely believable as a man. But
does she need to be convincing? Part of the joke could be that we willingly assent to both the
author's and the actor's gender bending and blending. It is to director Sally Potter's credit that she
tries to emulate Woolf's determination to play with male and female roles. In the film not only is the
male Orlando played by a woman, but Queen Elizabeth I is played by a man (Quentin Crisp).
Though quite feminine in the film, in the novel Sasha (a female with a masculine Russian name) is
portrayed in ambiguous sexual terms - is Orlando attracted to her masculinity? The moral of the
story, if it can be called such, is that sex is as much a convention as gender, or any other role
prescribed by society. It can be changed at will. It is the inner essence of people, male or female,
which matters. Thus, Potter's Orlando, on discovering he is now a woman, declares, "Same person,
no difference at all," to her mirror reflection. She then looks directly at us and adds with a smile,
"Just a different sex."
Books have always provided inspiration and material for filmmakers. With the recent successes of
the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many others too numerous to mention,
the question of "faithful" versus "truthful" adaptation has gained prominence. It was once generally
accepted that adapting a novel to film was a constraint on the film. New sensibilities and concerns
now colour our readings of all the old classics. A generation raised on MTV and Hollywood
blockbusters has less tolerance for introspection and intellectual (as opposed to physical) activity.
Today's viewer/reader expects physical (often fast-paced) action, sex, "cool" visual effects. Can the
filmmaker stay "faithful" to the original book while appealing to a contemporary audience?
In the case of Orlando society had changed drastically in the intervening six decades between
publication of the novel and release of the film. The film's opening credits appear amid a group of
giggling girls singing and dancing in some kind of new-agey nature ritual which does not seem to
bear any relationship, direct or indirect, to the narrative. In the book a third-person narrator tells us
Orlando's story, but in the film Orlando him/herself tells us the fantastic tale.
Some voice-over is used, and in many scenes, Orlando looks at the camera and often speaks
directly to the viewer.

In contrast to the book which opens with Orlando's violent game of "slicing at the head of a
Moor,"[3] the film opens with our protagonist very passively reclining against a tree and reading
poetry. In the film as well as the novel Orlando occupies himself with literature and writing. At the
beginning of the novel Orlando is late to greet the queen because he's been working on his five-act
tragedy. In the film Orlando fancies himself a poet. By chapter two of the novel he's written fortyseven plays, which he later burns. He saves only one piece, which he reworks and rewrites as a
poem. The poem of the novel becomes the book itself in the film; the poem's title "The Oak Tree"
becomes a literal tree anchoring and providing a neat opening and closing image for the film's
narrative. (Like Orlando's essential self, the oak tree also appears as a constant. Though it has been
suggested that it symbolises England, it is more likely that the tree represents Woolf's concept of
the immortality of "worthy" literature, and "good" art in general.) Unlike the novel, however, in
which Orlando continues to write through the centuries, the film doesn't show Orlando writing
again after he receives the scathing satire of his presumed mentor, poet Nick Greene. The only
indication we have that Orlando has continued or returned to writing is a scene towards the end.
Orlando is meeting with a London publisher who asks how long it has taken to write the enormous,
leather-bound manuscript.
In addition to the central premise of Orlando's fluid and variable gender, there are other instances of
gender ambiguity and confusion. One such case is the sexual masquerade of Archduchess Harriet
who is later discovered to be a man. In the novel, Harriet meets Orlando before he leaves for
Constantinople. Orlando is attracted to her. It is only after Orlando's sex change and return to
England that Harriet is revealed to be Harry. The Archduke explains that he fell in love with the
male Orlando's portrait and so disguised himself in order to seduce Orlando. Now that Orlando is a
woman, Harry comes again to proposition her. In the film, the Archduke has always been a man he confesses to the female Orlando that he had been in love with the male Orlando as well. Because
the gender is now appropriate (and since the person is still the same) Harry proposes to Orlando.
Sexuality and desire are more flexible and adaptable than societal conventions. This is more than
mere gender bending, it is a not-so-subtle hint at homosexuality - but turned on its ear. This is the
sexual ambiguity of the transvestite, the confusion of a pre-operative transsexual. Orlando is
violently opposed to such a marriage and runs away from Harry (which does not quite fit with
Woolf's image of the self-confident, emancipated woman. I should note here, however, that Woolf
was not always keen on strength. Though she advocated a specified and individual freedom for
talented women, particularly in A Room of One's Own, she mocked the plainness and coarseness of
some of the Suffragettes.). In the novel Orlando actually laughs Harry away, which is, I believe, a
much more aggressive and appropriate reaction.
Woolf addresses the ironies of inequality and sexism inherent in the social, legal and political
systems of the times. When Orlando returns from Turkey as a woman she becomes the subject of
legal suits concerning her estate. The courts must determine "whether she was alive or dead, man or
woman, Duke or nonentity."[4] The parallels and contrasts set up in this sentence are clear. To be a

man is to be alive and have social standing.


To be a woman is like being dead, a social and legal nonentity. The legal questions are finally
resolved in a "compromise" which guarantees the estate to male heirs. Woolf seems to say that sex,
like paternity and property rights, is no more than legal wrangling. She wants the reader to
acknowledge the tyranny of sex, the freedom enjoyed by men in male-dominated society.
Another theme in Orlando is "becoming," the process of evolving and creating. It involves the
artistic process and the act of writing, as much Woolf's as Orlando's. It is the movement away from
the unquestioning acceptance of the status quo towards the ability to express one's self freely.
Orlando's education in this process begins when he is disappointed in his first and greatest love. He
rejects his fiance for the deceitful and faithless Russian princess. Their affair begins with a shared
laugh at the expense of acceptable social mores. It is significant that Sasha's humour escapes
Orlando's condemnation because of her wit, even though he is satirized by association. Woolf also
hopes the reader will go along with the joke and accept the gender-bending fantasy even though we
are implicated in its criticism. Orlando loses all control in his blind passion for Sasha. He waits in
vain at the appointed midnight hour and is sadly disillusioned when she does not come.
Fortunately for Orlando, this bitter disappointment is not fatal or debilitating, though necessary in
his evolution. Sleep is often considered restorative, an agent of regeneration. This idea of "beauty
sleep" takes on literal dimensions for Orlando. Almost like a hibernating narcoleptic, he is aided by
deep and prolonged periods of unconsciousness during which he is able to ride out the
transformations within and without. Woolf calls these trance-like sleeps "remedial measures ... in
which the most galling memories, events that seem likely to cripple life for ever, are brushed with a
dark wing which rubs their harshness off and gilds them."[5] When Orlando awakes he is renewed
and reborn from one existence into another.
Woolf fiercely lampoons and criticizes the repressive Victorian society. "Love, birth and death were
all swaddled in a variety of fine phrases. The sexes drew further and further apart. No open
conversation was tolerated. Evasions and concealments were sedulously practiced on both
sides."[6] Orlando rebels against the conventions of the era, especially the Victorian imperative of
marriage and motherhood as the goal and destiny of women. She declares herself married to nature.
However, Orlando does end up getting married - to the androgynous Shelmerdine (is she attracted
to his femininity?) - in a rather poetic and mystical ceremony accompanied by nature's howls. The
film skips this wedding scene: we see the effects of the southwesterly winds and watch as Shel
mounts his horse and leaves for America. In the novel, Orlando appears to have succumbed to the
restrictions of society by marrying and retreating indoors. Yet she manages "by some dexterous
deference to the spirit of the age, by putting on a ring and finding a man on a moor, by loving
nature and being no satirist, cynic, or psychologist"[7] to gain her independence. "Now, therefore,
she could write, and write she did."[8]

There is great irony in Woolf's assertion that, "As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a
woman thinking ... and as long as she writes little notes nobody objects to a woman writing
either."[9]
But it is not only Orlando who "artfully dissembles her intentions by propitiating the jealous
guardians of art."[10] Like her own protagonist, Woolf also managed to disguise the "radically
contraband" character of her writing.[11] The novel has been lauded as a lesbian feminist discourse.
Completely missing from the film is the female cross-dressing Orlando who "enjoyed the love of
both sexes equally."[12] By omitting this section, the director parts with Woolf's original intent. For
Orlando is about more than just the arbitrary and elective nature of gender. It is not just about the
freedom to select one's sex, or to act without the constraints of traditional male/female roles. It is
also about self-determined sexuality; the freedom not only to choose one's sex but also to choose
the sex of one's lovers. "Though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the
consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those
feelings which she had as a man."[13] The idea is even more radical and progressive than our own
supposed anything-goes approach to sexuality with its persistent arguments of nature against
nurture, choice versus genetics. In the novel, of course, Orlando has a constant self: as a poet.
Woolf felt the "artist" was essentially androgynous.
Potter plays with the ending in the film version. Woolf has Orlando wandering through her house,
which is now a museum open to the public. She goes to the oak tree intending to bury the
eponymous book. It has been published, received critical acclaim, and won a literary prize. She
leaves the book unburied and calls out for Shel. Suddenly an airplane appears and Shel jumps out
while a goose flies over his head. It is midnight and the lover has returned.
In the film Shel does not reappear. When he leaves on his horse, Orlando closes her eyes. She
reopens them as a plane flies overhead and war breaks out. She runs through a battlefield in a daze,
an echo of the Turkish revolution scene. She is pregnant. We assume Orlando has had a son when
we see the young child wearing cap and goggles, riding in her motorcycle's sidecar. But when they
arrive at the house/museum, the boy is revealed to be a girl (another depiction of ambiguous
gender). Orlando ends up sitting under the oak tree, the same one which she sat under as a boy at
the beginning of the film. But now, instead of a plane delivering an earthbound Shel, there is a
heavenly vision. The flying goose has become a cheesy singing angel while Orlando and her
daughter are the image of a post-modern Madonna and child. And in this version, I think the film
fails.
I was perfectly happy with Potter's portrayal of Orlando as a modern, liberated single mom.
Turning her into a sainted icon, or some type of transcendent role model, shatters our fragile belief
in the fiction.
The willing suspension of our disbelief is stretched beyond its sustainable limits, and a powerful

mythopoeic narrative becomes mere allegory.


In a case of one-too-many instances of playful gender blending, former Erasure lead singer, Jimmy
Somerville, is the angel. In the novel Woolf links Orlando's female and male lovers (Sasha and
Shel) and describes both in sexually ambiguous terms. Furthermore, Orlando is abandoned by
Sasha at midnight, while Shel returns to Orlando also at midnight. They are like two incarnations,
twin avatars which embody or personify the male and female aspects of Orlando's ideal lover.
Potter also links Sasha and Shel in the film by casting Billy Zane and Charlotte Valandrey who
resemble each other - besides the wavy brown manes, they even have strikingly similar smiles. If
Potter's androgynous angel is meant to bring closure, there should have been some resolution in
terms of the Sasha/Shel connection. It may have been more effective had the angel looked like
some kind of combination of the two. Somerville's singing seraph, however, is a distraction which
bears no resemblance to either Sasha or Shel. Though the lyrics (a clever variation on Woolf's
theme of "becoming") were penned by Sally Potter and accurately reflect the message of the film,
[14] they would have been more appropriate as background music - there was no need for these
words to be made flesh.
In my estimation, films can never be truly "faithful" to the original novels because there is a change
in art forms; from words on a page to action on a screen. However, despite the limitations and
constraints inherent in adapting Orlando for cinema, I think Potter produced a well-made movie
which, for the most part, adheres to the truth intended by Woolf. Virginia Woolf used satire, irony,
and sarcasm to trace English history as well as its literary tradition. She used varied writing styles
to illustrate and accommodate the different epochs, and much of the story is without dialogue.
Throughout the novel we see the evolution of an artist who lives life at its most intense. With her
lush cinematography, varied camera angles, and vivid use of color Sally Potter attempted to give a
visual sense of Woolf's writing. Despite the unnecessary and annoying angel vision, Potter does a
good job of bringing the film full circle and tying up the beginning and end into a neat package.
Orlando as a boy is sitting under a big oak tree. Orlando as a mature woman is back under the oak
tree. We hear an echo of the opening line with the gender changed: "She - for there could be no
doubt of her sex."
[1] Virginia Woolf, Orlando, A Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1990 [1928]), p. 3.
[2] Sally Potter, Orlando (Civic Square, ACT: Ronin Films, 1992), video recording.
[3] Woolf, p.3.
[4] Woolf, p. 108.
[5] Woolf, pp. 39-40.
[6] Woolf, p. 147.
[7] Woolf, p. 174.
[8] Woolf, p. 174.
[9] Woolf, p. 176.
[10] Maria DiBattista, Virginia Woolf's Major Novels: The Fables of Anon (New Haven, CT: Yale

University Press, 1980), p. 139.


[11] Leslie Kathleen Hankins, "Orlando: 'A Precipice Marked V' Between 'A Miracle of Discretion' and
'Lovemaking Unbelievable: Indiscretions Incredible'," Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, Eileen Barrett
and Patricia Cramer, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1997), p. 182.
[12] Woolf, p. 221.
[13] Woolf, p. 161.
[14] "I am coming! I am coming! / I am coming through! / Coming across the divide to you. / In this
moment of unity / Feeling an ecstasy / To be here, to be now / At last I am free - / Yes - at last, at last /
To be free of the past. / And of a future that beckons me. / I am coming! I am coming! / Here I am! /
Neither a woman, nor a man - / We are joined, we are one / With a human face. / I am on earth / And I
am in outer space / I'm being born and I am dying." Sally Potter, et al., "Coming," Orlando Soundtrack
(London: Virgin Music, London Records, 1992).
Timotheos Roussos is originally from Cyprus. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His main area of
interest is in Anglophone postcolonial literature and he is writing his thesis on contemporary depictions of
transgressive masculinities by indigenous authors.

http://www.uah.edu/woolf/Orlando_Potter.htm

Notes on the Adaptation of the Book Orlando


By Sally Potter
My task with the adaptation of Virginia Woolfs book for the screen was to find a way
of remaining true to the spirit of the book and to Virginia Woolfs intentions, whilst
being ruthless with changing the book in any way necessary to make it work
cinematically.
It would have been a disservice to Virginia Woolf to remain slavish to the letter of the
book, for just as she was always a writer who engaged with writing and the form of the
novel, similarly the film needed to engage with the energy of cinema. And although the
book was already a distillation of 400 years of English history (albeit an imagined view
of that history, told with a liberal amount of poetic license), the film needed to distill
even further.
The most immediate changes were structural. The storyline was simplified, any events
which did not significantly further Orlandos story were dropped.
The narrative also needed to be driven. Whereas the novel could withstand abstraction
and arbitrariness (such as Orlandos change of sex) cinema is more pragmatic. There
had to be reasons, however flimsy, to propel us along a journey based itself on a kind
of suspension of disbelief.
Thus Queen Elizabeth bestows Orlandos long life upon him ("Do not fade, do not
wither, do not grow old . . .") whereas in the book it remains unexplained. And
Orlandos change of sex in the film is the result of his having reached a crisis point, a
crisis of masculine identity. On the battlefield he looks death and destruction in the
face and faces the challenge of kill or be killed. It is Orlandos unwillingness to
conform to what is expected of him as a man that leads, within the logic of the film, to
6

his change of sex. Later, of course, as a woman, Orlando finds that she cannot conform
to what is expected of her as a female either, and makes a series of choices which leave
her, unlike in the book, without marriage or property, and with a daughter, not a son.
These latter changes seemed to me entirely consistent with Virginia Woolfs views in
her other works on the condition of womens lives (especially A Room of Ones Own)
and crisply logical within the framework set up in the earlier part of the story.
Orlando is at its heart a story of loss, the loss of time as it passes, a meditation on the
impermanence of love, power, and politics. I simply carried that logic through to
include Orlandos loss of property and status in the 20th century. Whilst the loss of
property in the story is a symptom of the second-class status of women, there is also an
aspect which is worthy of celebration: the loss of privilege and status based on an
outdated English class system.
Orlando was of course originally written as a spoof biography of Vita Sackville-West.
Where the book holds most tightly to apparent biographical facts it occasionally loses
its power as a story (such as Orlandos "keeping" the house at the end of the book,
which was a way for Virginia Woolf to restore the lost Knole to Vita Sackville-West).
I tried to restore Orlando on film to a view more consistently detached and bitingly
ironic in its view of the English class system and the colonial attitudes arising from it.
At the same time I needed to ensure that Orlando was a loveable character. The clue
was to highlight Orlandos essential innocence. He happens to have been born into a
class, a place and time, and is shaped by it, but as the essential human being remains;
the patterns of behaviour and attitude are transformed.
Other obvious changes from the book include dialogue (and poems) which have been
invented from sometimes slender clues on the page, and Orlandos words and looks to
the camera which were intended as an equivalent both of Virginia Woolfs direct
addresses to her readers and to try to convert Virginia Woolfs literary wit into
cinematic humour at which people could laugh out loud.
Finally, the ending of the film needed to be brought into the present in order to remain
true to Virginia Woolfs use of real-time at the end of the novel (where the story
finishes just as she puts down her pen to finish the book). Coming up to the present day
meant acknowledging some key events of the 20th century--the two world wars, the
electronic revolution, the contraction of space through time reinvented by speed. But
the film ends somewhere between heaven and earth in a place of ecstatic communion
with the present moment.

http://www.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/orlando-returns-sally-potter-and-tilda-swinton-interview/Content?oid=2177983

"Orlando" Returns: Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton interview


Melissa Anderson interview with Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton Wednesday, Jul 28 2010

Almost unthinkable now, 18 years ago, a writer-director and a performer made career breakthroughs with a
film based on a 1928 novel by a titan of modernism about a character who changes genders and lives
through four centuries. In her nimble adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Sally Potter who had
previously made avant-garde shorts and the feature-length The Gold Diggers (1983), an experimental gloss
on Busby Berkeley created one of cinema's finest page-to-screen transfers, which played at Venice in
1992 and opened New Directors/New Films the following March before its U.S. release in June 1993.
Orlando also introduced Tilda Swinton until then known almost exclusively to art-house cognoscenti for
her work with the fiercely uncompromising Derek Jarman to a larger audience. As the titular poetryloving nobleman of the very early 17th century who becomes, some 100 years later, a noblewoman, Swinton
gives one of the bravura, protean performances that have come to define her career: Her gender
metamorphosis was the first of many audacious onscreen transformations, including her speaking Russianinflected Italian in the current I Am Love.
Just before its updated release on DVD, with Swinton more popular than ever, Sony Pictures Classics is
taking the unusual step of rereleasing a new print of Potter's masterpiece in theaters. This, after Potter's
latest, Rage, had the dubious distinction of being the first film to debut on mobile phones last September,
leading one to wonder: Was it possible to make more daring films in the early '90s than it is now? Potter is
reluctant to generalize: "Before Orlando was released, it met with absolute resistance just as much
resistance as anything I've tried to do subsequently," she says, reminiscing with Swinton at the Bowery
Hotel about their sole collaboration the day after MOMA kicked off its Potter tribute. "This particular
project was an impossible one and ridiculous to take on."
Undeterred by industry professionals who sniffed that the film was "unmakable," Potter, who wrote her first
treatment for Orlando in 1984 and began working with Swinton on the project in 1988, would eventually
shoot not just in England but also St. Petersburg, Russia (re-creating Woolf's icy winter on the Thames
scenes), and Uzbekistan (a stand-in of sorts for Orlando's journey as an ambassador to Constantinople,
condensed in Potter's film). Swinton notes that the very outrageousness in tackling Woolf's gender-bending,
time-traveling novel, which she and Potter had both read and adored as teenagers, was "liberating":
"Existentially, there's something about a very loved book there's something about that experience that is
very solitary, very private. And the idea of shining a light on it and attempting to render that somehow
collectively viable is weird."
Although certainly loyal to the bold spirit of its original source, Potter's Orlando is also distinguished by the
director's own interventions: adding characters like Jimi Somerville's singing angel, upping the gender-play
by casting Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I, giving Orlando not a son but a daughter, and ending the film
not in 1928, when Woolf's novel concludes, but 1992. "You can't be overreverent when you're doing an
adaptation," Potter says. "It doesn't serve the original author well, because you're moving into a different
medium. But [all changes] have to be done on the basis of knowledge. You can't just hack at something. The
thing with Virginia Woolf is, you can't dilute her. So I really studied not only the book, but everything that
Virginia Woolf had ever written. The ending had to be done because the novel was so much about ending in
the present moment, when she put down her pen. To be true to that principle, we had to take the story up to
the moment of finishing the film in 1992. To be true, you have to change things."

Changing is precisely what Swinton worked hard to avoid when her male character wakes up a woman.
"Transformation is not about changing," she laughs. "It's about a sustainable spirit." Or, in Potter's equally
heady words, it's "looking for a state of being-ness through time and space and genders." As Orlando herself
says while looking into the camera: "Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex."
This direct address to the audience, occurring several times throughout the film, became crucial to
establishing what Potter refers to as "a state of absolute complicity" and what Swinton calls "personal
connection." "I think, cinematically, we had this task, which was to break the picture," Swinton continues.
"One goes into a frame, and it's possible to get lost in the picture. And we were continually wanting Orlando
to break" she snaps her fingers here "out of the picture and make contact with the audience."
Leaping across centuries, Potter's film, while visually opulent, remains free of the obsession with surface
detail that weighs down so many historical epics. "The thing I said again and again and again to the design
crew was, 'This is not a period film. This is a film about nowness,'" Potter says. "It's this skip and a hop
through an imagined history that is rooted in an eternal present. And I think that's what makes it look, at any
point, fresh."
Did the film, with its deft approach to gender fluidity, strike these two as being ahead of its time? "It didn't
feel like it was particularly new," Swinton says. "It felt like it came out of something." Both women mention
the importance of the legendary director Michael Powell, who died two years before the movie's premiere
but who, as Potter explains, "personally put his support in private behind the project when others were
saying it's impossible." Swinton continues: "He told us there was a time when he considered making a film
of Orlando. So one can imagine making this film in the 1950s. I don't know whether it ever felt like it was
ahead of anything."
Essentially, years whether 1600, 1928, 1992, or 2010 are meaningless. "By definition, [the film] is out
of time because of what it does," Potter says. "It hasn't gone away." She turns to Swinton, laughs, and adds,
"Here we are we're still talking about Orlando. It'll never end." Then they head off to a photo shoot,
walking side by side, their arms around each other's waists.

http://bombmagazine.org/article/1673/sally-potter

Sally Potter by Shari Frilot


In Sally Potters cinematic adaptation of Virginia Woolfs novel, Orlando, the writer and director offers a
picturesque tour through time and sexuality. Orlando invites audiences to hitch a ride on the life of a young
male aristocrat who, throughout the course of the film, transforms from man to woman and lives 400 years
of history (memory). After decades of making experimental films, Potter herself is transforming as an artist:
Orlando is Potters first foray into narrative feature filmmaking since she started making films with an 8mm
camera at the age of 14. The jump is enormousthe breadth and sweep of Orlando is sensuous and grand.
9

Yet Potters journeyman approach to filmmaking allows Orlando the depth and idiosyncracies of the
independent. We spoke about whizzing through spacetime over an early morning cappuccino.
Shari Frilot Ive seen your past work Golddiggers, Thriller, London Story and of all those, Orlando is
the least experimental. What led you to choose a more traditional narrative form?
Sally Potter Its really the lessons learned from traveling widely with the earlier films. I always hoped my
films were accessible. What I learned is that they werent, in the way they set out to be. A narrative thread
gives people permission to think about other things whilst being carried by its flow. It does not mean that
one has to compromise ones vision, or question formal concerns. Its just being more subtle and clever by
having one accessible thread.
SF Then you are moving into the narrative form?
SP Well, interestingly, at the script stage of Orlando, financiers said, "So, its about someone who lives 400
years and changes sex. Thats fine but whats the story?" I am not polemically attached to narrative. I was
part of a movement that wanted to take everything to do with filmmaking apart, including the narrative. Im
now at the stage where I want to put it back together again. Its not about stepping back from concerns, its
about moving on.
SCENE 58: EXT/DAY: THE GREAT HOUSE
ORLANDO is walking up the path towards the entrance to the house. The ARCHDUKE HARRY is trotting
by her side, and has clearly been talking for some time.
ARCHDUKE HARRY: None of us knew what had happened. Its extraordinary! And to think we could have
been so charmingly misled.
ORLANDO sighs in exasperation, lifts her petticoats and walks once more with her familiar male stride
between the topiary pyramids.
The BUTLER hurries anxiously after ORLANDO, with two OFFICIAL-LOOKING MEN following close
behind.
FIRST OFFICIAL: The Lady Orlando?
ORLANDO: (turning around) The same.
The SECOND OFFICIAL steps forward, hovering slightly behind the first.
FIRST OFFICIAL: We wish to inform you, er, madam, that you are a party to several major law suits that
have been preferred against you concerning the property.
SECOND OFFICIAL: (smirking) The family seat.
ORLANDO: Pray continue.
The FIRST OFFICIAL coughs and unfurls a document.
FIRST OFFICIAL: (sotto voce) One. You are legally dead and therefore cannot hold any property
whatsoever.
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ORLANDO: Ah. Fine.


FIRST OFFICIAL: Two. You are now a female . . . .
SECOND OFFICIAL: (gleefully). . . which amounts to much the same thing.
FIRST OFFICIAL: (restraining the second official) Pending the legal judgment, however, you have the
laws permission to reside in the property in a state of incognito.
SECOND OFFICIAL: Or incognita, as the case may be . . . .
The ARCHDUKE HARRY suddenly lunges for ORLANDOs hand.
ORLANDO: Harry!
ARCHDUKE HARRY: There is only one solution in your current predicament.
ORLANDO: Indeed?
ARCHDUKE HARRY: I can offer you a house to rival your own!
ORLANDO: I . . . I dont quite understand.
The OFFICIALS bow and leave, coughing and embarrassed.
ARCHDUKE HARRY: (laughing nervously) I confess! Orlandoto meyou were, and always will be,
whether male or femalethe pink, the pearl and the perfection of your sex.
The ARCHDUKE goes down on one knee in front of Orlando.
ARCHDUKE HARRY: Im offering you my hand.
ORLANDO: Oh Archduke! Thats very kind of youyesbutI cannot accept.
ARCHDUKE HARRY: But I . . . I am England. And you are mine.
ORLANDO: I seeOn what grounds?
ORLANDO and the ARCHDUKE stare at each other. The ARCHDUKES eyes fill with tears.
ARCHDUKE HARRY: (despairingly) That I adore you.
ORLANDO: And so I belong to you?
ARCHDUKE HARRY: You are refusing me?
ORLANDO: I am. Im sorry.
They stare at each other. The ARCHDUKE looking incredulous and hurt.
ARCHDUKE HARRY: But Orlando, with your historyquite franklywho else would have you?
11

ORLANDO pulls herself up to her full height.


ARCHDUKE HARRY: (bitterly) With your . . . ambiguous sexualitywhich I am prepared to toleratethis
is your last chance of respectability
ORLANDO: (panting)I cant breathe
ARCHDUKE HARRY: You will die a spinster. Dispossessed and alone.
ORLANDO turns on her heel, lifts her skirts and strides off.
SF What kind of feedback have you gotten?
SP The film seems to have been a kind of relief. Ive had both men and women come up in tears, or write me
letters that they had to go and cry somewhere. Partly, its because the story shows that it is hard to be a man
and its hard to be a woman, how society shapes and drives these things called masculinity and femininity.
But what is infinitely more important is our common humanity. Which isnt to say that we dont have very
different experiences and are treated very differently because of gender. Another relief is that the film
recognizes the complexity of sexuality and identity and most of us have felt pushed into a reductionist
corner. Every individual is much more complicated than that.
SF What was your motivation for taking up the story Orlando?
SP The most sustaining part of the story, for me, was the notion of immortality. Why are we alive for only
such a short time? How do we relate to our forefathers? Is there a soul? The really big questions that the
religions have tried to tackle. So that became a more abstract realm, in addition to the visual potential and
sheer scope of the novel and the gender themes. When you work on a film for so long, you need deep, tasty,
underlying ideas to explore. It was also very satisfying to create a huge part for an actress, as there are so
few meaty parts for women.
SF When Orlando made love for the first time as a woman, what was going through your mind? Was
Orlando making love to Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) as a man or as a woman? What sexuality was Orlando at
that time? How did you direct that scene?
SP First of all, Orlandos story is the story of an individual, but its also the story of a country. The story of
England or really any other colonial-based country. So, all the events in Orlandos life as an individual have
national as well as personal significance. In the nineteenth century, England was a colonial power that was
eventually to lose its empire. America was in the process of becoming one. So, they meet at the point of
exchange. For Orlando, it is like looking in a mirror into a possible future. The real question is not only
whether she is a woman meeting a man or a man meeting a man, it is also about the meeting of ideologies:
Englands feeling of destiny arising out of its pastAmericas of free will through the dream of its future.
And in their embrace is the bittersweet theme of possession. But behind these layers of implication is the
simple question, What is love? It is two members of the human race meeting each other. That is how the
scene was directed. Through the eyes.
Excerpt: SCENE 61: EXT/DAY: MOORLAND
The landscape is wild, devastated and windswept.
ORLANDO lifts up her skirts and starts to run. The camera swoops, bird-like, around her as she runs, to the
sound of thundering, romantic piano music.
12

ORLANDO suddenly trips and falls and then lies stunned, prostrate, face down with arms outstretched, like
a nun offering herself as a bride to Christ.
ORLANDO: Nature! Nature! I am your bride! Take me! The sound of her racing heartbeat is gradually
overtaken by the sound of a horses hooves pounding onto the turf.

INTERTITLE: 1850 SEX


ORLANDO looks up as the horse and rider (SHELMERDINE) gallop into her line of vision, silhouetted
against the bright sky. The horse rears up, startled by the prostrate figure.
SHELMERDINE is flung to the ground, and lies spreadeagled in front of ORLANDO.
ORLANDO lifts her head and looks questioningly into the camera.
SHELMERDINE slowly raises his head. He is darkhaired, wild looking and extremely handsome.
SHELMERDINE: Youre hurt Maam.
ORLANDO: Im dead, Sir!
SHELMERDINE pauses, carefully scrutinizing ORLANDOS expression.
SHELMERDINE: (lightly) Dead. Thats serious. Can I help?
ORLANDO: Will you marry me?
SHELMERDINE: Maam, Id gladlybut
SHELMERDINE winces in pain as he tries to move. ORLANDO looks startled.
SHELMERDINE: I fear my ankle is twisted.
SF Did you intend any sort of comment on bisexuality in that moment or . . . .?
SP Orlando is not a film about confirming sexual identities. Its more about exploding them. I know there is
a huge desire to affirm these things, but thats not what the film is doing. Its really about shifting human
identity throughout history. Exploding the myths of sexual identity with a gentle touch.
SF In the past, the strategy of your films was about stripping a story to the bone. Orlando is just the
opposite, so much piled on to what began as a relatively simple story. Am I reading this right? Why the
opposite?
SP Bones and flesh, bones and flesh. I love your description because, to me, thats what Ive been up to. But
the way I worked in Orlando was from the bone up. The book was taken down to the bone over several
years. Im talking about making charts of the skeletal forms. I was trying to find out what it was really
about. That took the most time. Having found what I thought was a viable skeleton, there was a rush of
13

pleasure of fleshing it out. Just excitement and passion and giving way to my own pleasure. To me there is
an intimate relationship between austerity and more lush aesthetics. Theyre two faces of the same coin.
SF Near the end, Orlando strips everything down.
SP To pure beingness. That was the intention. That last look into the camera. It was supposed to be without
anything, no acting, just pure communication
SF How long did Orlando take to get into production? How long was the shoot?
SP The shoot was shortten weeks and a ten week edit. But that was on the back of four years of
preparation: 20 or 30 trips to the Soviet Union to find locations, story boarding, picture research, meetings
with cinematographers, and so on. And raising the money, which is what determined the time frame. The
official pre-production period was ten weeks, a very hectic time. In retrospect I can see that I really needed
the slow build beforehand.
SF Your film, Thriller, was a short film. But it was large in the sense that it was a story within a story, within
a story. It was like traveling along a fractal. Just tell me if this is wrong, but were you ever interested in math
and science?
SP Why do you ask that?
SF I dont know, some of the things that you say.
SP The next film is connected to that. Ive tried to teach myself mathematics and physics to try to come to
terms with some of these things. But what do you see in my work that made you think I would be interested
in math?
SF Right now, one of my passions is fractal geometry. Fractals are profoundly beautiful. And the way you
jump around scales of being in your films and in your conversation seems like you have a cosmic vision.
Youre able to traverse ground very well, non-linearly. Youre hopping around points and all the while
covering the whole.
SP As the director, you have to hold in your head the widest possible vision. Not just the idea and the story,
but the conceptual content. But at the same time, you have to consider the tiniest, tiniest detail. I think that
gives one a visceral sense of the interaction between the tiniest and the largest, that mathematics also has a
language for.
SF Mathematics is a formal language, very elegant. But its amazing to see this pattern that you create, that
is created by mathematics. Its not there in nature. But its very natural. Fractal geometry is shaking things
up, things arent so linear. Do you know about deterministic chaos?
SP Im reading about that, particularly for the next film, but also in relation to Orlando. It connects with the
central abstract questions about time. The story drives through 400 years, and the last frame is supposed to
be the present. Which brings us to all these questions: What is the present? Is time reversible? Is it a
completely solid, concrete thing? Or fluid and changeable?
SF Are you going to continue this investigation of time in your next project?
SP I look at cinema as intimately linked to time. Its bound by timean hour and a half or whatever. In
Orlando, everything moves forward in time. It never goes back, even though there are repeated dramatic
moments, such as the rain falling, a symmetrical echo. I was working on the advice of Michael Powell: "You
14

only have to say things once." Its a risky feeling, but I found it exciting. You have to find the one clear way
to say something and then let it go forever.
SF It is a different relationship to continuity. David Balms theory is that the universe is basically a
hologram, all wave forms and interference forms.
SP I wonder if science has always had this theological allure . . . .
SF Science always has a spiritual implication. Mathematics and the physics of the day play a huge role in
how we identify ourselves.
SP Ive often felt that an individual could sit in a room somewhere and if he or she thought long, hard, and
deep enough, could come up with new frontier ideas in these forms. In other words, that all these ideas are
pre-existent, there to be found. I know that when Im working I sense that I am bringing something preexistent into focus. But perhaps its just a trick of the mind, to ease the process of invention.
SF I am really itching to see your next film. Do you think you will continue to work on feminist themes?
SP I have come to the conclusion that I cant use that term in my work. Not because of a disavowal of the
underlying principles that gave birth to that wordthe commitment to liberation, dignity, equality. But it has
become a trigger word that stops peoples thinking. You literally see peoples eyes glaze over with
exhaustion when the word flashes into the conversation. So I never use the term, except amongst very
intimate friends for whom it has a different meaning. There is some way in which the jargon of the radical
liberal arena, has become an alienated disservice to its own causes. I also think that the word feminism
doesnt imply enough in terms of solidarity with other liberation struggles. I am firmly committed to the
notion that no one group can be freed until all groups are freed. The female struggle implies the black
struggle, it implies the struggle with anti-Semitism, it implies all of the other struggles. That is the only
possible way to think about human liberation. However, I could never forget what it has been to me to
understand the historical oppression of womenand my own. But I really see womens struggle as one of
the great interlocking struggles. If you are describing any of them, you are describing all of them. So that
consciousness will always be around in my work. But I am not interested in making didactic polemical
statements. That is not the way I want to make films. There is a place for polemics, but I dont think that it is
in fictional cinema. Fictional cinema works subtly and deeply.
SF I wanted to ask you about that angel in Orlando. Where did the angel come from?
SP First of all, I think that Jimmy Somerville is an angel. He has the voice of an angel, the grace of an angel.
Secondly, I wanted to end the film with a literal looking up. And perhaps it is Orlandos guardian angel.
There are voices running through the whole film, subliminal voices. The voices become flesh. What he is
singing is important: "Im coming, Im coming, Im coming through. Im coming across the divide to you."
He is manifesting all of the contradictions and paradoxes of the film. All coming into focus at that one
moment. That seemed to me a very angelic moment.
Coming Orlandos song*
I am coming! I am coming!
I am coming through!
Coming across the divide to you.
In this moment of unity
Feeling an ecstasy
To be here, to be now
At last I am free.
15

Yes at last, at last


To be free of the past
And of a future that beckons me.
Yes at last, at last
To be free of the past
And of a future that beckons me.
I am coming! I am coming!
Here I am!
Neither a woman, nor a man.
We are joined, we are one
With a human face.
We are joined, we are one
with a human face.
I am on earth
And I am in outer space
Im being born and I am dying.
I am on earth
and I am in outer space
Im being born and I am dying.
SF For me, the whole idea of heaven and hell is an attempt to unify the present moment by splitting it up
into pieces. In the end it is more of a disservice than a service because it breaks up time and space. There is
no continuity between living here on the planet and what is happening in heaven and hell, or being in
heaven, for that matter. When I saw the angel it was challenging on that level. There is really no religion in
the film at all. It is so very much about Orlando and his evolution. It was the first time that I had seen an
angel do exactly what angels are supposed to do, which is to expand upon the present moment. Whats next?
What is scratching inside of you that you want to treat with thoroughness?
SP I need time to absorb and digest what it is I want to do before I take my next step, but I want to make
films that generate hope and ecstasy. Orlando was the most incredible learning experience for me. When I
was making it I felt like I was seven, when every day I was learning something new. I had to keep reaching
beyond my own limits. I would like to make another film in that way because I feel that is how to livewith
the feeling of learning and learning and learning. A perilous existence. Being prepared to fail.
Shari Frilot is an independent producer and co-director of MIX: The Annual New York Lesbian and Gay
Experimental Film/Video Festival.
The excerpts in this interview are from Sally Potter's screenplay Orlando. 1992
*Lyrics 1988 Sally Potter.

http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/great-directors/potter/#3
At the Senses of Cinema site you will find an account of Sally Potters professional life, including
theoretical and cinematic influences on her as a director which are linked to examples from her films.

http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppparchive/100/202/300/mediatribe/mtribe95/orlando.html
16

Turning the Gaze Around and Orlando


by Nuria Enciso
Much space has been devoted within film criticism to the idea of `the gaze', specifically the male gaze. The
text which initiated the discourse, and according to some the authoritative text, is Laura Mulvey's `Visual
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. Written in 1973 the article is still, almost 25 years later, heavily quoted and
referred to in matters dealing with the representation of women (and gender) within cinematic language.
Although I believe Mulvey's findings were accurate and valid when the article was written I find it difficult,
considering the present situation of film, to grant Mulvey's description of mainstream film universal validity.
Using the 1993 production Orlando , directed by Sally Potter and based on the novel by Virginia Woolf,
I will attempt to demonstrate that not only is a female gaze viable and active within mainstream cinema, but
that its existence within popular culture is necessary in order to bring about the changes Mulvey so rightly
decreed as essential to the representation of women.
Mulvey's thesis states that visual pleasure in mainstream cinema derives from and reproduces a structure of
male looking and female "to-be-looked-at-ness" (whereby the spectator is invited to identify with a male
gaze at an objectified female) which replicates the structure of unequal power relations between men and
women. This pleasure, she concludes, must be disrupted in order to facilitate a feminist cinema. I think it is
important to note that the term `female gaze' does not necessarily mean a `feminist gaze'. The question of
differences between women are a reminder that when arguing the case for a feminist gaze and an effective
feminist intervention in mainstream culture it is prudent to consider just who is looking at whom. At the
same time, sex does not guarantee the gaze to be female. Many women, particularly those who gained initial
acceptance into mainstream texts did so by presenting still the male gaze- a patriarchal perspective.
Therefore being a woman producing texts does not guarantee a feminist gaze nor does being a woman
ensure a homogeneous female gaze. Black women, older women, younger women, working-class women,
and lesbians are just a few of the marginalized groups whose dissenting voices have felt a need to fight for a
place within Western feminist discourse. Age, Ethnicity, sexuality and class determine the female gaze as
much as sex does. Mulvey maintains a heterosexist perspective by assuming a heterosexual male protagonist
and a heterosexual male spectator. What happens if the protagonist is a woman? There exists a range of
female looks: where does lesbian desire fit in within her theory? It can only be theorised as `masculine'.1 In
privileging gender as the category which structures perspective, psychoanalytic criticism such as Mulvey's
tends to depoliticise other power relations in our society- most notably those of class, ethnicity and
generation. A feminist analysis can perhaps afford autonomy in terms of its interest in gender but not,
Marshment and Gamman would suggest, if is produces a theory which cannot relate gender inequality to
other structures of social inequality.2 Politics of power underlie feminism- differences between women give
the lie to any claim for a single female, or even feminist, subjectivity. Radical texts, like Mulvey's, do suffer
from an element of pessimism: brilliant at uncovering our oppression and rewriting women into the history
of creativity they have, for the most part, effectively remained alternative, outside the mainstream. I think it
is fair to assume that these texts, whether in print or on celluloid (both to which Mulvey has greatly
contributed), have remained on the fringe and therefore have not contributed as greatly as they could have to
altering the position of women within society; most of which consumes and thus receives their entertainment
and information form mainstream texts. Marshment and Gamman feel that we feel cannot afford to dismiss
the popular by always positioning ourselves outside it.3 They express interest in how feminists can intervene
in the mainstream to make our meanings part of `commonsense'- or rather to convert commonsense into
`good sense' for it is from popular culture that women (and most men) are offered the culture's dominant
definitions of themselves. It seems crucial to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of intervention in popular
forms in order to find ways of making feminist meanings a part of our pleasures. Ann Kaplan's observation
that because all dominant images are basically male constructs it is therefore impossible to know what the
feminine might be outside of male constructs4 is an insightful and legitimate perspective however, aspects of
female autonomy and control have found expression in popular genres that have conventionally featured
17

male protagonists without falling into a simple reversal of gender roles. I believe Orlando to be exemplary
of this.
Mulvey argues that mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a
hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing
for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy.5 Here Potter begins her break with
the traditions Mulvey decrees almost uncontested. Within the first two minutes of Orlando, Orlando makes
visual contact with the camera and directly addresses the audience who is watching the film. Mulvey later
continues and furthers her theory on voyeurism by discussing the moral ambiguities the audience
experiences by looking in.6 Because Orlando looks directly into the camera and at the audience he/she
acknowledges and recognises them- actually engages them through address- thus dispelling any unease that
could arise in the act of voyeurism since the possibility of voyeurism is cast out as soon as Orlando
establishes contact with the audience. Similar to documentary filmmaking, the acknowledged material
existence of the recording process adds a dimension of "truth" to the finished product.
Mulvey continues that the presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative
film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of
action in moments of erotic contemplation. Anticipating a situation, Mulvey argues that the male figure
cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.7 Potter refutes both of these notions. Orlando, once
transformed from male to female, not only works with the development of the story line but takes it further
and deeper than it has gone prior to the sexual transformation. The actual change of sex brings into play
issues that had not even been considered prior to the event. When Orlando attends the tea party, in the
company of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, she experiences misogyny for the first time; this experience
essentially sets the tone for the rest of the film, not only developing the story line but carrying it. Regarding
the inability of the male figure to bear the burden of sexual objectification Shelmerdine, Orlando's ultimate
love interest and father of her child, not only bears the objectification but submits to it. As late as 1985
Rosalind Coward concurs with Mulvey in that she suggests that because the male body is not seen as
desirable, men remain in control of desire and the activity of looking8 . Not only is Shelmerdine seen as
desirable but Orlando controls the desire and thus the activity of looking. It is difficult to disagree with
Suzanne Moore who states that after years of women complaining about the objectification of their bodies
we find ourselves confronted with male bodies on display and that these images appeal to us precisely
because they offer us the possibility of an active female gaze.9 The camera lingers over Shelmerdine in a
way normally reserved for women. The love scene [Quicktime movie, 450K] [MPEG movie, 175K] between
he and Orlando is extremely interesting in that the role each character plays would be reserved for the other
sex according to Mulvey's definition of mainstream cinema. Orlando observes and caresses Shelmerdine in a
manner which is fully of her own doing and desire. At one point she sits up in the bed and stares at him- the
point of view of the camera becomes an overhead, medium close-up of his face from Orlando's perspective.
He is being watched and expresses himself (slightly nervous, shifting eyes, slight blush, and finally a
nervous smile) in a way typically reserved for the objectified woman. Orlando is not simply a passive
character- she speaks female desire, she looks back. Potter again breaks with Mulvey's dictates in order to
bring across her (female) point of view.
Mulvey continues her theory by expounding upon Hitchcock's liberal use of subjective camera from the
point of view of the male protagonist to draw the spectators deeply into his position. Potter also uses
subjective camera but from the point of view of both male and female (since her protagonist transforms from
one to the other) thus drawing us into both positions (though I will later argue what Woolf and Potter argue
that both positions are really one and the same). The narrative is woven around what Orlando seesregardless of sex. The audience follows the growth of his/her obsessions and despairs precisely from his/her
point of view.
Considering that Potter presents both the so-called female and male Orlando perspective I feel it important
to raise a question that Margaret Marshment asks in `Substantial Women'.10 Should we aim to appropriate
the definitions and qualities assigned to man or should we concentrate on presenting a re-evaluation of
18

existing definitions of femininity? (and masculinity). It has been argued that the potentially progressive
representation of female strength is negated by the idealisation of femininity; Orlando (and Shelmerdine)
idealise neither femininity or masculinity. They themselves ask the same question Marshment asks. After
meeting and riding to Orlando's house (the horse being conducted by Orlando with Shelmerdine behind her
holding her waist) the following dialogue takes place:
Orlando: Say if I were a man...'
Shelmerdine: Say if I were a woman...'
O: I may choose not to fight in battles, for freedom won by death is not worth having.
S: I may choose not to sacrifice my life caring for my children or my children's children or to drown in the
milk of female kindness, but instead, say to go abroad.
In this instance the myths of demarcated sex differences to which are culture is deeply committed to are
exposed. There is not a simple exchange of roles but a questioning of those roles. The questioning of the
relation between sex and gender, and the suggestion that the characteristics and behaviours prescribed for a
particular sex are done so by society and learned through the socialisation experience is exactly what
Mulvey accurately exposed as necessary in mainstream cinema and a void that could only be filled through
the female gaze. Potter has achieved what Mulvey deemed to be next to impossible.
The resistance of women to patriarchy is a struggle against a form of power that causes individuals to
conceive of themselves in a limited and limiting way.11 Because of this it is important to engage with the
idea of difference within the category of woman. Acknowledging that forms of difference exist within the
category of the subject `woman' suggests that we should take a fresh look at the operation of conventional
feminist discourse, in particular its reluctance to deal with the question of female power. We cannot divide
women into two neat categories, for there are no solid boundaries between the feminist and the feminine
subject, the female and the feminist gaze. At the same time we cannot assume that the female gaze is
produced simply because women are behind the camera or because the main characters are women: the
female gaze is a conditioning of culture- not a product of biology. But the mere existence of texts which
present a gaze other than the male does challenge Mulvey's thesis about the ubiquitous male gaze of
mainstream cinema. To decide that in the dominant media the look is always already structured as male is to
cordon women off from using the medium and the dominant format of expression- fictional narrative. More
dangerously it isolates us further into the spaces society has deemed us worthy of and confined us to. As
Marshment asserts- to deny even the possibility of effective feminist intervention in mainstream forms
sounds suspiciously like a counsel of defeat.12 Disrupt rather than assume dominance Lorraine Gamman
suggests. The encoding of feminist meaning through mise-en-scene seems to offer a far more practical route
for feminist intervention. Disturbances of dominant meanings must occur in the mainstream- the results may
not be free of contradictions but they will perhaps encourage shifts in regimes of representation and thus
notions about women. The mixing of genres, the merging of fiction and non-fiction, pastiche and parody,
could well be used by feminists to `subvert' dominant meanings about women in popular culture. Radical
print and film texts have allowed new ideas to develop and exist- their contribution and importance is
unquestionable. However these texts have not and will not cross over into the mainstream in their original
format. Certainly alternative ways to gaze can be expressed in marginalized cinema but this marginalization
will and of itself marginalize whatever alternatives it will present. New meanings, in order to affect the
established order, can and must be produced within existing genres.13 Some feminist filmmakers have
argued against intervention in the mainstream, suggesting that only `tendentious' texts have revolutionary
potential, and that these alone will help wrest socially constructed phenomena from that stamp of familiarity
which protects them from our grasp. Mulvey's suggestion that the avant-garde is a more suitable site for
radical intervention is derived from her belief that mainstream cinema is so structured by the male gaze that
it is unable to accommodate images of women without fetishism. Her views are a little out of focus in a time
19

when mainstream genres use the sort of multiple narrative techniques than ten years ago were restricted to
independent filmmaking.14
Women must be encouraged to use the mainstream to infiltrate these ideas of representation into society. The
situation for women intellectuals and artists is already difficult enough without women discouraging their
own participation in popular culture. Women cannot expect to be acknowledged as equals in society if they
insist upon functioning and expressing their most worthy and urgent needs and demands at the margins. We
must not impose marginalization upon ourselves: the rest of society already does that for us. There seems to
exist two main strategies of challenge to sexist representation of gender: first those aiming to show how
much more like men women really are, in comparison with sexist stereotyping of women as different and
inferior, and second, those which defy masculinist criteria, representing masculine behaviour and
characteristics negatively, and feminine ones positively.15 Orlando is not represented within the categories
of either conventional femininity or masculinity but within both : "Same person, no difference at all- just a
different sex". Virginia Woolf hypothesised that we're all born simply as human beings who are then shaped
one way or the other, masculine or feminine, and that mostly it's how we're perceived by others that makes
the difference, rather than what we are.16 Potter's film, for all its divergences from the book, is essentially
faithful to Virginia Woolf's vision: through Orlando, Woolf and Potter attempt a new regime of
representation which endeavours to redefine, or even abolish, gender boundaries and structures. I believe the
status quo has been negotiated to take account of women looking, on and off the screen, providing a less
narrow range of stereotypes that existed in the mainstream when Mulvey wrote her paper. Faith must be
placed in a new generation of filmmakers to only widen the points of view of and about women. The camera
and/or the format is not the sculptor of passive femininity, but the person behind the camera. To quote
Potter: "It's, in a way, time for women to take up our inheritance, an inheritance of a different kind. That's
why the daughter is, at the end [of the film], playing with a little movie camera."17
1 Gamman, Lorraine and Margaret Marshment, The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture
(Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989), 4.
2 Ibid, 7.
3 Ibid, 7.
4 Ann Kaplan, Is the Gaze Male-? Women and Film- Both Sides of the Camera (New York: Methuen, 1983)
5 Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema: Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 17.
6 Ibid, 25.
7 Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema: Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), 19, 20.
8 Rosalind Coward, Female Desires: How they are Sought, Bought and Packaged (New York: Grove Press,
1985), 230.
9 Suzanne Moore, "Here's Looking at You, Kid!," The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture,
Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment (Seattle, The Real Comet Press, 1989), 44.
10 Margaret Marshment, "Substantial Women," The Female Gaze, Women as Viewers of Popular Culture,
Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment (Seattle, The Real Comet Press, 1989), 27.
20

11 Shelagh Young, "Feminism and the Politics of Power," The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular
Culture, Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment (Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989), 183.
12 Margaret Marshment, "Substantial Women,": The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture,
Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment (Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989), 28.
13 Lorraine Gamman, "Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze,": Ibid, 22.
14 Lorraine Gamman, "Watching the Detectives: The Enigma of the Female Gaze," The Female Gaze:
Women as Viewers of Popular Culture, Ed. Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment (Seattle: The Real
Comet Press, 1989), 24.
15 Margaret Marshment, "Substantial Women," Ibid, 28.
16Pat Dowell, "Demystifying Traditional Notions of Gender-An Interview with Sally Potter," Cineaste
[England], n.d., n.p., 16.
17 Sally Potter, Cineaste [England], n.d., n.p., 17.

http://www.themovingarts.com/orlando-does-sex-matter/
Twenty years on, it is well worth revisiting Orlando, Sally Potters 1992 adaptation of a Virginia Woolf
novel. Subtly convincing the audience that a persons sex does not define them, the film achieves something
which, in 2012, society is still far from accepting.
Orlando never grows old: when the film begins in the 1600s, he is a young man, and is still young when the
film ends in the late twentieth century. The only difference is that Orlando is now a woman. Although
changing sex certainly affects the way that Orlando is treated by other people, the film is remarkable in that
the audience is prepared for this change, and experience it less as those around Orlando experience it, and
more as Orlando him/herself.
From the very beginning of the film, the audience develops an affinity with Orlando and a sense of gender as
something elusive and therefore of lesser importance than usual. As the film opens, the camera tracks in on
Orlando, who is sitting under a tree. A voiceover narrator introduces the character, but when the camera
finally reaches a close-up on the characters face, Orlando turns his head to look directly into the camera and
speaks, interrupting the narrator. Orlando is no longer he but I: self (and personal experience) subtly
asserts itself as more significant than gender. Less subtle is the fact that this male character is being played
by a well-known female actress, Tilda Swinton, reminding the audience of how easy it is for adult women to
pass as attractive young men. The narrator states from the beginning that there is no doubt that Orlando is
male, in spite of the feminine appearance that young men liked to adopt in Elizabethan times.
The gender bending continues apace. In another early scene, a minor character who appears much older and
more virile sings in a falsetto a song about the beauty of Eliza, a queen who is now old and ugly. Queen
Elizabeth, in turn, is played by Quentin Crisp: the fact that an old woman can be convincingly played by a
man reinforces the point that signs of gender fluctuate with age. The Queen chooses Orlando as her
favourite, another reversal of the more common scenario in which powerful men keep much younger
women for their amusement. Elizabeth gives Orlando an estate to live on, with the humorous proviso that he
not grow old: Orlando unexpectedly conforms to this stipulation, remaining the same age for over 300 years.
Ironically, it is not age but a change of sex that forces him to relinquish his estate: as his advisors explain, in
terms of property ownership being female is the equivalent to being dead.
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Orlandos sex change takes place overnight, as if by magic, during his ten-year diplomatic stint in an
unnamed Middle Eastern country. Although Europeans once associated the Orient with femininity, the film
does not reinforce the stereotype: if anything, it reverses it. When Orlando first meets his eloquent and
manly Middle-Eastern host, it is Orlando as representative of the British aristocracy who appears feminine,
with his powdered wigs and awkward waffling. Notably, Orlando is still a man when the city is attacked and
finds himself ill-suited to fighting alongside his host. Orlando finally adopts the local style of dress,
exchanging his ornate European dress for simple swathes of cream fabric, and immediately appears more
modern and mature.
When Orlando returns to England as a woman, the reaction is predictably one of astonishment. She is still
the same person as before: indeed, when she looked at herself in the mirror on morning of her
transformation, she downplayed the importance of gender, saying that nothing has changed. For this
reason, the change in the way others relate to her is all the more astonishing. Having seen Tilda Swinton
dressed as a man for the entire film, the audience has the strange impression of feeling as though they are
watching a man in drag when they see Tilda Swinton in a dress. She continues periodically to address the
audience directly, however, emphasising her subjectivity, and that it is the person who matters, and their
experiences, not their sex. The clothing of a woman in the 1700s and 1800s seems only slightly more fussy
and restrictive than that of a man: instead, it is peoples attitudes to gender that makes her experience of life
as a woman so different. She speaks to Alexander Pope, whose experience of uneducated and silly women
makes him dismiss an entire sex: he cannot speak to Orlando as an equal, as he cannot see past her gender
and consider her as a person. Orlando discovers that the only way for her to maintain her property is to have
a son, which she does, by the twentieth century.
The end of the film brings its reflections on gender full-circle. The voiceover narrator is back again, this
time noting that in the late twentieth century, women favour an androgynous appearance. Orlando now
dresses in a modern unisex style, and rides a motorcycle. Her child is in the sidecar, and appears at first to be
a boy. When they arrive at Orlandos estate, the child is revealed to be a girl.
Orlandos treatment of gender manages to be both understated and radical: it is so natural in its treatment of
gender fluidity that people who are rigid in their attitudes to gender appear unnatural. It remains a visually
sumptuous and intellectually intriguing film.

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