Orlando, ma biographie politique
It’s not a call to arms, a strategic manifesto nor a cold analysis of structural queerphobia, but a bit of them all. An outcry, but also a sob, a game and a celebration.
Text: Călin Boto
Between the Lines
Paul B. Preciado takes his time. As such, Orlando, ma biographie politique, the first cinematic gesture of the provoking writer, in all honesty begins around its tenth minute, after a formal premise that has recently become a late political modernism formula in itself: a faux fictional film in the making, based on pre-existing sources (literary, historical etc.) with characters interpreted by non-professionals, eventually aiming to deconstruct concepts as role-playing, embodiment, reconstruction, closed history, fiction and nonfiction.
At first within this instant-tradition, Preciado’s debut seems in danger because, however challenging, recent films such as his (Ruth Beckermann’s Die Geträumte and Mutzenbacher, Sebastian Mihăilescu’s You Are Ceaușescu to Me or Elisabeth Subrin’s Maria Schneider, 1983) tend to mannerize themselves along the way, becoming oddly mechanic. Here, as a prelude, a letter is being written to Virginia Woolf and read out loud at once: there’s something religious in Preciado’s passion for Orlando, singing and crying his gratitude and anger towards a biography about him (as he calls it), one written long before his own birth, both thankful for and maddened by its otherworldly, poetic imprecisions.
Orlando, ma biographie politique doesn’t eroticize its bodies in any traditional manner – eroticism being fundamentally binary – but rather by a bodily humanism.
Shortly after, two youngsters present themselves in front of the camera: with a neck ruffle collar on and dressed like aristocratic club kids, they play Orlando, one by one or simultaneously, as a dozen more will also do throughout the film. Surrounded by nature, each of the duo talks about themselves, combining their own biography with that of Woolf’s Orlando (an aristocratic and sensitive English young man of the Elizabethan court who is turned into a woman after a magical sleep and surpasses centuries). As quotes mix with biographies, people come and go, fixing the performers’ microphones and make-up, but even if – or precisely because – Preciado insists on disclosing the public secret of cinematic artifice, his heterogeneous footage becomes conceptually complementary within itself. Caressed by sun, cleansed by water, put to sleep by statues, they pose in lyrical vignettes inspired by the author’s dense and lively writing, sometimes giving it voice, resembling the many genuinely beautiful faces and gestures of homophile art, but focusing on grace rather than eroticism (and overall, Orlando, ma biographie politique doesn’t eroticize its bodies in any traditional manner – eroticism being fundamentally binary – but rather by a bodily humanism). As it is, the beginning works immediately, but doesn’t for long.
Besides, there’s no need to, because once everything seems steady and the spectatorial wonder dissipates, Preciado escapes from his own reverie (just as Woolf mastered the proportions of escapism in her books), getting to where it hurts: the psychiatrist’s waiting room, where he puts on a pharma-liberation music video show. His thesis is getting articulated: Orlando is not up in a castle but down on the streets - and always has been. From now on, the film destabilizes itself with every vignette, slaying its way to quirkiness, while his counter-pointedly dead serious letter to (and about) Woolf becomes ever more lively, politically precise and personally involved.
Writing a biography involves all-knowing, all-seeing powers and Preciado wants none of it. Rather than making the story, already a classic of modern queer literature, representative for many by tenderness (Sally Potter’s Orlando, 1992) or chaos (Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando, 1981), he represents Orlando through many faces and voices, a collective yet defining protagonist. Their cause is profoundly queer – breaking away from the fundamental binarity of modernity – and it deserves a kindred queer form; said and done. Instead of inhabiting a crafted mise-en-scène of their own the performers populate public images: mise-en-abymes of ready-made settings such as talking-heads behind the scenes, standard music videos, a make-up booth and cheap campy décor, eventually – and deliberately so – ending up in public institutions, such as a hospital and a courtroom. It’s more than a quick, utilitarian mise-en-scène: its aim is vengeful and righteous, allowing queer people to reclaim the public space as well as the public image, both traditionally denied to them.
Like much recent queer cinema, Orlando loves and cares for itself, even speculates a victorious end of struggles. However, at no point does it feel lazy: it’s not a call to arms, a strategic manifesto nor a cold analysis of structural queerphobia (what supposedly turned political modernism into political post-), but a bit of them all. An outcry, but also a sob, a game and a celebration. Preciado, who appears in many tiny roles on-screen, yet always sad-eyed, has made a contradictory film, saddening even when enjoyable, out of a contradictory struggle. Queer culture is as exuberant as grieved, as superficial as profound, showing off but rarely showing it all. It bears the worst curse of memory, as it can’t allow itself to forget anything: that’s why it needs keepers, biographers as Preciado – people who are willing to delight, and hurt, spectators and themselves for history’s sake.
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Screenings in Swiss cinema theatres
Orlando, ma biographie politique | Film | Paul B. Preciado | FR 2023 | 98’ | Visions du Réel 2023, Pink Apple Festival 2023, Bildrausch Filmfest Basel 2023
First published: April 23, 2023