By Holden Seidlitz.
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023).
A boy in a blue track jacket and Victorian collar sits on a stepladder, surrounded by production equipment. While a stage tech drags a snowy backdrop behind him, the actor reads from the book in his lap. It is Orlando by Virginia Woolf—the knotty, daring story of an Elizabethan nobleman who one day wakes to find he has inexplicably changed into a woman. As the set is transformed in plain sight, the meta elements dissolving into a concentrated fantasy, the filmmaker’s own voice replaces the actor’s. Unseen, Paul B. Preciado asserts that, in Woolf but perhaps in general, “the first revolutionary metamorphosis is poetry,” which he defines as “the possibility of changing the names of all things.” Preciado, a lexicographer in his own right, makes the case for poetic documentary—which refuses narrative expectations of chronology and relies on playful resignification—as the most suitable mode for a queer adaptation.
In this scene, the soundstage, with the boom kept in frame, its artifice gestured to rather than hidden, becomes a form of reflexive theatre; the other form of reflexive theatre at play is transness itself. In her 1992 adaptation of the novel, Sally Potter equated her fourth wall–breaking to “Virginia Woolf’s direct addresses to her readers,” and Preciado recognizes that this postmodern self-reference can be further harnessed to simulate the conspicuousness of a reconstructed identity. The visibility of a sexual body in transition invites and perhaps necessitates participation in a kind of theatre, one in which the other is asked to accept the terms of the world they are being shown. Preciado says in voiceover that he could not assume the name Orlando when he began transitioning because there was too little resemblance, which has something to do with believability (assignation from others) and also identification (self-assignation)—“nothing could be further from the existence of the son of a garage owner and a seamstress in an anonymous town in the north of Spain than the life of Orlando”—but nonetheless, in his filmmaking, he permits a visual dramatic reality not limited by clean logic.
Preciado declares at the outset of his debut film that despite his many works of academic memoir, he has not yet written his own biography—“fucking Virginia Woolf” beat him to it. Preciado, who was mentored in his early scholarly training by Derrida, has concentrated his work around encoded meaning, how one makes not only the sexual body legible, but also the illegible felt. Transitioning is a matter of legibility—for Woolf’s Orlando, what is troubling after his transformation is that he is no longer legible as having been once a boy; for Preciado, and the many Orlandos of his film and of our world, legibility itself is the trouble.
According to Preciado, there are, like the seasons, four metamorphoses in Woolf’s story: poetry, love, exile, sex. That love (“that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little,” per Barthes) is the result of poetic possibility is, Preciado narrates, “why Orlando falls in love with the arrival of the Great Frost, and the transformation of the state of water, the most essential of the elements, into ice.” Eros—in its own way the energy set in motion by some shift, in this case hardening—is kinetic. There is no passion in stasis. Woolf’s text is both spoken and spoken about, to reveal what this epicene woman in early 20th-century London either couldn’t say, or couldn’t know.
Between fake frosted trees on the fake white landscape, two transmasculine people playact the fictional queer romance between Orlando (Ruben Rizza) and Sasha (Castiel Emery). In mirrored confessionals, Rizza and Emery, as themselves, each muse on the origins of their desire, almost as if they are on a dating show. Rizza mentions another trans boy he calls Sasha (careful ambiguity blurs what is true, what is drawn from the source, and what supports Preciado’s construction), who, he says, “made me feel understood very quickly. I felt supported very quickly by a person I didn’t know.” Then, Rizza’s cherubic Orlando and Emery’s ice-blond Sasha approach one another, fake snow drifting down from above, but by now the camera has zoomed to conceal the equipment behind the scrim, and the lighting has sharpened to afford everything a photorealistic depth. As the duo rotate as in ballroom courtship, the viewer forgets the gaffer standing a few paces offscreen. The cumulative effect echoes the automatic true-sight shared between the boys, between Orlando and Sasha, between any two trans people; the seams of theatricality have been sealed.
The hybrid documentary form is, too, one of irreverently imaginative possibility, a kind of oxymoron of truth. “Vérité, vérité, vérité,” three drag queens shout as yet another Orlando (Naelle Dariya) wakes from slumber as a woman. “Let biologists and psychologists argue unnecessarily,” this Orlando says, “as for us, the facts are enough.” Preciado merges the practical and bureaucratic with the fantastical, the historic with the present and speculative, allowing the edges of nonfiction to curl.
Once archival footage is introduced, subsequent interviews match their black-and-white grain, collapsing their subjects’ separation through time. As Preciado acknowledges in a dramatic recreation of Orlando’s descent into the crypt, we do not exist alone, but as the continuation of a lineage. “Nothing remains of all these princes,” Woolf’s Orlando says, taking the hands of skeletons in his own, wondering to whom they belonged, “man or woman, of age or youth?” To write one’s biography, Preciado argues, is to revisit the past, “the faceless ones who preceded us.” And in his case, there is a political imperative of the gravest order: “It is necessary to survive violence in order to tell our history. It is necessary to tell our history in order to survive violence.”
The film chiefly succeeds as a critique. Preciado insists on his Orlandos occupying buildings in which they have historically been disempowered—city hall, a news control room, a psychiatrist’s office—in order to address his criticisms of the earliest broadcast appearances of trans people, whom he notes were always introduced disembarking a boat or plane, as if transformation “should necessarily take place in a parallel world.” He instead places the transformed bodies in the most mundane, even orthodox, locations as a beautiful disruption. Similarly, his insistence on nature allegory and imagery threatens questions about what is “natural.” The first act takes place in an Edenic forest, where a rouged Orlando (Janis Sahraoui) tells the story of injecting her first dose of estrogen, positioning transness as something not at odds with but entirely contiguous with the organic.
In a 1952 television recording, a man asks Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman, “Do you have any plans regarding theatre?” “No,” she says, rubbing her eye wearily, “I don’t think so.” This sly repudiation—too poised to balk at what she knows lies beneath his inquiry, that he believes transness to be more theatrical than any other performance of gender—informs Preciado’s own defiance. It is no coincidence that the professional spaces Preciado shoots are often referred to as “theatres” in which political acts are performed on the body, be they convictions, operations, all manner of déshabiller—dressing and undressing.
After another Orlando (Jenny Bel’Air) is banished from a hotel on the basis of her passport, IDs are described as “administrative prostheses,” appendages by which the state can augment the body. Preciado cuts to an operating room, where ruffed Orlandos in scrubs gather around the novel, lying sedate on a gurney. (Such moments may seem corny, but they gesture to a refusal of queer shame.) Justifying the comic surrealism by committing to it, one doctor slides an IV into the book’s cracked spine. After a medical bib is slipped over the open pages, a close-up follows a scalpel as it underlines the phrase, “Violence was all,” which is sliced out and lifted onto a biopsy table as if to be examined, or as if it has been removed as a malignancy. The doctor then sutures photographs of Marsha P. Johnson, Lou Sullivan, and Preciado himself onto the pages. “Our bodies are discursive artifacts, assemblages of fiction and flesh,” Preciado says. The Body, like The Film, is created from material as much as from imagination.
At the end of the film, in a courtroom, distinguished in judicial robes, Virginie Despentes, the feminist writer and Preciado’s lover in Testo Junkie, issues administrative prostheses to each Orlando in turn, granting them “citizenship” to a new world, a world of their communal making, until they are all—by means of the very tools which had previously oppressed them—liberated. “Life is not at all like a biography,” the first Orlando (Oscar S. Miller) says in the opening scene, “but it consists of the metamorphosis of oneself…becoming not only other, but others.”
France, My Political Autobiography, Orlando, Paul B. Preciado