In Sally Potter's 1993 Marxist-punk-tinged Virginia Woolf adaptation, Tilda Swinton plays the titular British lord blessed with eternal youth who, after failing in the world of men and balking at his preordained role in imperialist war, suddenly shape-shifts into a woman. With Orlando now being reissued in theaters, Swinton's current fame adds an additional bend to a performance that's a complicated feat of drag, intentionally unconvincing as either pure man or pure woman so as to better hammer home the point that gender is mutable. Potter combines swatches of swooning epic — servants skating curlicues around Orlando and his nonstarter first love on the frozen Thames, Orlando's pregnant trudge across a battlefield, a lost weekend with Billy Zane — with blunt metawinks, obsessively underlining subtext ("The same person, just different sex!" Orlando tells the camera upon waking up with lady parts) and defying period film's standard stodgy portraiture by positing Orlando as the rare subject who can talk back from inside the painting. It's most pleasurable at its most ridiculously fantastic — which Potter must understand or she wouldn't close out the film by introducing an angel in gold lamé as a New Agey dance track swells on the soundtrack. A huge art-house hit on initial release, Orlando may have been utterly of its moment, but imagine what this end-of-the-century fuck-you to royalty, patriarchy, and hierarchy might have looked like — felt like — had Potter gone classical. What if, instead of constantly stressing her postmodernist approach to and critique of this fairy tale about an immortal androgyne transcending class, history, and the physical possibilities of the universe, Potter had simply asked us to believe in it?
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