Orlando: My Political Biography
(France, 98 min.)
Dir. Paul B. Preciado
Virginia Woolf once wrote that fiction is like a spider’s web that attaches to “life at all four corners.” This metaphor gestures to the sticky relationship between truth and fiction, between lived experience and representation, and it comes to mind when reflecting on the Teddy Award-winning, lusciously liminal and wholly hybrid film Orlando: My Political Biography. This performative documentary/creative biography is a kaleidoscopic adventure that dives ruff-deep into Woolf’s literary classic Orlando: A Biography, linking the 1928 gender fluid novel with trans identity, theory, politics and poetics.
Director, writer, philosopher and curator Paul B. Preciado was invited by French-German broadcaster Arte to make a biographical film about their life as a trans man. Instead, Preciado opted for an unorthodox, delicious adaptation of the book as it relates to their own biography, as well as the lived experiences of a rich cast of trans and non-binary players who range from 8 to 70 years in age. Expanding on the original text, Preciado presents a titillating tapestry of direct address monologues (that usually begin with “My name is [person’s name] and I will be playing Orlando in this film”), striking visuals both in studio and on location, and creative flourishes that range from musical numbers to chess match meetings with pathologizing psychiatrists, to dreamy make-out sessions with trees, to recreated scenes from the book. Real people play themselves while also fluidly and captivatingly performing fictional characters from the original text (especially the titular character from the novel).
This approach could have fallen flat in the wrong hands, but Preciado has crafted a beguiling, dazzling gem of a film that manages to live proudly and beautifully in the fuzziness of gender, sexuality, humanity, and art. Producing a work that is so unabashedly and queerly political can also land as too earnest, too on the Victorian sleeve. Orlando is a film that defies such pitfalls, perhaps best exemplified by a breakout dance number in a psychiatrist’s office waiting room in which an anti-Big Pharma musical number includes lyrics (penned by Preciado) with difficult multisyllabic words that are sung with a smooth, catchy reverie to delightful effect. These joyful scenes not only transmit community and poetry, they are grounded in Preciado’s insistence on upending the “psychiatric gaze” and with it, the pathologies that are produced about, and fixed onto transgender people.
During the post-screening discussion, Preciado said that trans, queer, and migrant folks come from dispossessed places. Orlando then is a film that repossesses, in its affirmation, insistence and celebration of “every Orlando,” the trans and non-binary people who are not only forced into categories through institutional violence (discursive and embodied) from psychiatry to pharmacology to citizenship (some of the cast were unable to travel to Berlin due to the refusal of states to change names on passports), but who defiantly reject and resist such harmful boundary policing. The result is a perfect merging of political theory, rebellious collective will and radical imagination.
The prolonged and buoyant standing ovation at Berlinale was well-deserved for Orlando: My Political Biography. It was, like the film, a life-affirming display of admiration and celebration that nearly erupted into a dance party, the infectious possibility of which reminds me of this Woolf quote: “There is nothing staid, nothing settled, in this universe. All is rippling, all is dancing; all is quickness and triumph.”