Paul B. Preciado's metatextual grappling with Virginia Woolf's novel is a playful and moving exploration of gender identity
“Virginia Woolf wrote my biography,” director and narrator Paul B. Preciado informs us partway through his new documentary, Orlando, My Political Biography. Just as Woolf's Orlando experiences immortality, the 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography endures as one of the most important and revered works in the queer literature canon. Sally Potter’s 1993 film adaptation includes a visual motif that endures as a totemic image of queer cinema: Tilda Swinton as Orlando looking directly into the lens, pale and regal with a piercing gaze.
Here, in his first documentary, Preciado, also a philosopher and curator, borrows Potter’s fourth wall-breaking while emphasising the biographical element to witty and moving effect. Retelling the story in relation to his own experience as a transgender man as well as the wider trans community, Preciado's central thesis is that “the contemporary world is full of Orlandos.” By linking this classic British novel to the discrimination trans people experience today, especially given the transphobia rampant in UK media, he re-radicalises the canonised.
Here is Preciado’s Orlando, played by Oscar-Roza Miller: non-binary, blonde mullet, pale luminous skin, Swinton-esque in face and build. They sit under a tree in summer in modern clothes, though with an Elizabethan ruff, evoking Swinton’s pose and period-accurate costume. But then there's also Janis Sahraoui, another Orlando of a different race, a different representation of who the character could be.
And so throughout the film Orlando is played by an ensemble of trans people who are interviewed about their own gender identity while also inhabiting Woolf’s character. One early highlight finds a third Orlando arriving at a psychiatrist’s waiting room only to find it full of trans Orlandos waiting to tell the binary-obsessed doctor what he wants to hear in order to receive a hormone prescription. Suddenly, the waiting room becomes a club, the documentary a music video, and the Orlandos sing a jubilant song about liberation via hormone treatment while giving Freud and Lacan the middle finger.
As Preciado unfolds Woolf’s narrative via striking, metatextual tableaux, he explores both the joy and the isolation of the trans experience, and of what it means to uphold the restrictive binaries of masculinity and femininity. Playful and earnest in equal measure, his film doesn’t deify Woolf (it explicitly confronts Orlando as a figure of colonial brutality), but offers an inventive and often moving take on a beloved text while imagining what trans liberation might look like. It’s rightfully destined to become an enduring piece of trans filmmaking.
Orlando, My Political Biography was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch