The compromised sexual positioning of Orlando: postmodern play in gender and filmic conventions

The compromised sexual positioning of Orlando: postmodern play in gender and filmic conventions – NSW Film As Text

Christina Lane

THE 1993 FILM, ORLANDO (SALLY POTTER), follows the four hundred year journey of a young British aristocrat who has been graced, or some might say cursed, with immortality. Halfway through his journey, Orlando (Tilda Swinton) undergoes a transformation from man to woman and finds him/herself confronting eighteenth and nineteenth-century society’s narrow and confining attitudes toward femininity.

Director Sally Potter uses this gender switch to illuminate the loss of power Orlando endures once he becomes a woman; however, she goes beyond a simple illustration of women’s social inequality. Potter suggests that both women and men are disadvantaged by traditional gender norms, favoring a more fluid, flexible conception of gender roles and relations. She does this by highlighting the constraints that the character faces as a male, navigating an identity which conflicts with the expectations of his time. The film’s archeology of gender eventually reveals the ways in which Orlando, as male, has contributed to such expectations, given that he, as a ‘she,’ must eventually contend with the very possessive attitudes that he expressed toward women in his early romantic life. Orlando’s four hundred year character arc, perhaps the most prolonged and complicated in narrative feature film history, teaches both the protagonist and the film’s audience about the ironies and hypocrisies of patriarchal definitions of masculinity and femininity. As we shall see, the film tries to solve the problems posed by these patriarchal definitions through experimental narrative techniques, such as direct address, and very specific codes of cinematography that reinforce its vision of gender. This aligns it with the postmodern proclivity to challenge and play with traditional conventions in narrative and filmic conventions.

Potter struggled for eight years to make Orlando, which was adapted from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel-length ‘love letter’ to authoress Vita Sackville-West. She faced difficulty obtaining production financing, which she (and producer Christopher Sheppard) finally pieced together from Italy, Holland, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. (1) The $6 million budget was much larger than any she had worked with before. Based on its lush visual style, Orlando was picked up for distribution by Columbia, which allowed for a broader release than her previous films. The project gives meaning to the term ‘international co-production,’ drawing on the combined resources of numerous countries and synthesizing many visual cues and references into a kaleidoscopic perspective of the main character’s far-reaching world.

Prior to this first attempt at a narrative feature, Potter had built her reputation in avant-garde cinema, and was best known for Thriller (Sally Potter, 1979) a feminist inversion of the opera La Boheme, and The Golddiggers (Sally Potter, 1983) an improvisational reversal of Prince Charming fairy tales (for which she had an all-female cast and crew). With Orlando, she was able to capitalize on Hollywood’s then-burgeoning interest in independent cinema, creating a highly reflexive and ironic cultural commentary that was, in addition, cinematically sophisticated and filled with dazzling spectacle. It is, then, a ‘crossover film’ preoccupied with the process of crossing over. Targeting both art-house theaters and mainstream multiplexes, Orlando combines experimental and conventional techniques and deploys relatively high production values to create effects that have more often appeared in non-commercial forms and genres.


The film’s most obvious experimentation concerns the relationship between Orlando and the camera. The character often turns toward the camera while in the middle of playing a scene in order to directly address the narrator, and in turn, the director, and perhaps most importantly the spectator. For example, the character first appears in a field, sitting against a tree. Voice-over narration introduces Orlando by stating, ‘There can be no doubt about his sex–despite the feminine appearance that every young man of the time aspires to … But when he ….’ Orlando then turns into the camera and declares, ‘that is, I.’ This moment of interruption functions as a distancing device, drawing on the modernist tradition of Brechtian theater to break the fourth wall that supposedly separates performer and audience. The film’s questioning of gender identity thus starts here, at the very beginning, in the yoking of gender and identity (‘he’ replaced by ‘I’) and the refusal of our protagonist to be confined by an external definition of him. Given the film’s feminist project, it is important to note how this strategy of interruption works against the possibility of a ‘male gaze’ governing the frame that constructs Tilda Swinton (as actress) and Orlando (when a woman). She refuses to be objectified by the camera, given that she continually declares herself as subject, ‘That is, I.’

Potter and Swinton arrived at the idea of using direct address to provide continual commentary on the narrative through a prolonged process of rehearsals and improvisations. Over the course of several years, Potter worked with Swinton as she practiced the film’s dialogue. Often at the end of a reading, the actress would turn to the director and, in a conversational mode, offer responses or queries. In this process, they found that these slippery passages that constantly moved Orlando in and out of the diegesis fitted nicely with the film’s focus on fluidity.

Potter saw this technique as ‘a golden thread that would connect the audience, through the lens, with Orlando, and in this way the spectacle and spectator would become one through the release of laughter.’ (2) The direct address actually works in two ways at once. On one hand, the extended interaction between Orlando and the presumed spectator reinforces a bond that extends across long spans of time and some rather unusual character development. While the protagonist’s constant asides do provide coherence, on the other hand, they interrupt conventional processes of identification and spectatorial investment, so that the ‘golden thread’ works self-consciously on the film, unraveling and critically examining its stitches rather than firmly anchoring the character into a ‘master’ position of authority.


The theme of Orlando is that gender identity is performed, as one might enact a theatrical performance on a stage, rather than determined by an essential or biological core. The film is most provocative in those moments when it visualizes this theme through cinematic devices. Consider, for example, the sequences that focus oil the protagonist’s encounter with Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). Upon hearing the news that she is about to lose her estate because she is a woman (and hence, ‘legally dead’) and then experiencing the shock of the marriage proposal by Archduke Harry (John Wood), she whisks herself away into the garden. The maze of the garden, with its narrow passages and constant detours, functions much like the maze of gender that has structured and will continue to structure her long life. As she makes her way through the circuitous hedges, the misty fog that begins to envelop her signals a shift into the Victorian era. And soon she stumbles onto the ground and speaks to ‘Nature, nature.’ in the most contrived (and in this sense, unnatural) manner, Shelmerdine and his horse gallop into the field out of nowhere. A caricature of the knight in shining armor, he is immediately thrown off his saddle and twists his ankle.

As Orlando nurses Shelmerdine’s injury, they launch into the following conversation about his ongoing pursuit of liberty:

Orlando: You have fought, in battles, like a man?

Shelmerdine: I have fought. Orlando: Blood?

Shelmerdine: If necessary, yes. Freedom must be taken. Freedom must be won.

Orlando: If I were a man …

Shelmerdine: You?

Orlando: I might choose not to risk my life for an uncertain cause. I might think that freedom won by death was not worth having. In fact–

Shelmerdine: You might not choose to be a real woman at all … Say if I was a woman …

Orlando: You?

Shelmerdine: I might choose not to sacrifice my life caring for my children, nor my children’s children. Nor to drown anonymously in the milk of female kindness. But instead, to go abroad. Would I then be–

Orlando: A real woman?

Orlando and Shelmerdine reach the heart of their conversation when Orlando posits, ‘If I were a man,’ and the camera unhinges itself from its locked position and begins to move between the characters, swinging like a pendulum. Just at the moment when gender positions become unlocked and held up for examination, the camera mirrors the conversation through its movement. Indeed, it literally carves out the ‘space in-between’ man and woman, constructing a site of gender ambiguity that has the potential to be redefined with the same kind of spirit and imagination that Orlando and Shelmerdine embody as individuals. The theme of fluidity so highly valued by Potter, here becomes inscribed into the cinematic space.


While interested in tropes of transexualism and cross-dressing, the film reveals a deep investment in a humanist perspective of gender. It constantly voices a universal approach that says, ‘Fundamentally, we are all human’. Yet it also posits that femininity and masculinity are socially constructed rather than biological givens, emphasizing the performativity of gender. Our main character declares upon realizing that ‘he’ has become a ‘woman’; ‘same person, different sex’. Potter’s decision to focus on the humanism of Woolf’s novel elicited some criticism at the time of the film’s release, especially from lesbian audiences who thought that the homoerotic undertones of the source material had been unfortunately effaced in the adaptation, particularly given the book’s status as an expression of love for one woman by another woman.

This critique is particularly valid when one considers that, even as the film unfixes gender, it repeatedly heterosexualizes Orlando’s romantic exchanges. For example, when he is a man, he falls in love with a woman, the Russian Princess Sasha (Charlotte Valandry). When she is a woman, she falls in love with Shelmerdine. The primary homoerotic energy that runs through either of these interludes–and this energy is not inconsequential–occurs by virtue of Swinton’s presence as actress, when she/he gazes lovingly at Sasha and kisses her passionately.

It is possible, however, to read the Orlando/Sasha and Orlando/ Shelmerdine relationships in more complex terms, by connecting them in ways that produce a matrix of polymorphous gender and sexual arrangements between all four of them. The film connects Sasha and Shelmerdine in a number of ways, beginning with the likeness in their names–both start with an ‘s’ and contain the ‘sh’ sound. Furthermore, Sasha and Shelmerdine have similar physical characteristics, including their olive complexions, dark hair, light eyes, and heavy brows. (3) These two characters function as doubles for each other; they might even be perceived as combining into a singular formation of one character that reappears twice throughout Orlando’s long life. (Granted Sasha and Shelmerdine have different personalities. but perhaps Shelmerdine has learned from past mistakes and shed some of the arrogance and self-centeredness manifested in Sasha.) Viewing the characters in this light helps to open up the film’s philosophy of sexuality. Their heterosexual identities and orientations become almost as fluid and malleable as Orlando’s gender identity, revealing a range of erotically charged positions of self, other, desire, and sexual expression. (One might also see the Khan, in Khiva, as connected to Sasha and Shelmerdine, at least through his physical characteristics and the intimacy he shares with Orlando. Indeed, though the film downplays the lesbian subtext of the novel, it provides a definite hint of male homoeroticism between Orlando and Khan.)

When Orlando is at her most naked and vulnerable, making love to Shelmerdine, the compositional framing of their bodies reinforces this fluidity of sexual positions. The scene begins in a place of ambiguity, so close to her body that its shape and design is abstract rather than concrete. The camera lovingly caresses her body, apparently essaying to give it dimension and length, in contrast to conventional cinematic codes which tend to objectify and fragment women’s bodies into parts. The extended tracking shot ends by focusing in on a tight shot of Orlando’s unblinking eye, again reinforcing her identity as seeing subject rather than seen object. The overhead shot of Orlando and Shelmerdine that follows paints their entangled, embroidered bodies as amorphous and all-connected, so that it is nearly impossible to distinguish which part belongs to whom. Their positioning, therefore, reiterates the film’s interest in closing the gap between such binary oppositions as male/female, masculine/feminine, self/other, and subject/object. It is the space between these polarities that matters; Potter writes this space across the couple’s body.


The ending of Orlando, which was devised by Potter to bring Woolf’s novel up to the end of the twentieth century, answers the protagonist’s inescapable loneliness–the curse of immortality–with a daughter. It would be easy to view this resolution as an attempt to ‘fix’ the character’s gender by locating her in the traditional woman’s sphere of reproduction. Such a view, however, would be reductive. The appearance of the daughter functions on a deeply symbolic level, especially considering that Woolf had written Orlando’s child as a boy. Potter rewrites this gendered plot point and, as a result, produces not just a revision but a reenvisioning of Orlando’s story.

Indeed, some of the final moments are shot through the point of view of the daughter (who is played by Swinton’s niece, Jessica Swinton). This little girl’s roaming, dancing vision of the fields in which we first met Orlando signals the birthing of a new way of seeing, a lens that is much less static and immobile as that which framed Orlando’s four-hundred year journey. The child’s handheld camera, the tool by which she might gain access to herself and the world around her, is not just any camera but a digital one. The film suggests that the contemporary generation of daughters stand at the threshold of a new age, one in which they might take their place as active, looking subjects rather than objects of vision, of narrative, of history. Potter explains that the presence of Orlando’s daughter at the film’s conclusion is ‘about the future and continuity and literally inheritance. The whole rest of the film up to that point is determined by, if you like, the male line of inheritance, the property-owning classes, and the rest of it. At the end there is another kind of inheritance that becomes possible.’ (4)

This definition of inheritance appears to draw not just from the continuity of mother and daughter but also from the possibility of continuity between girls in the daughter’s generation. The incorporation of domestic video recording at the end is also a celebration of the democratic means of image production, available and accessible to all and capable of producing a virtual community. (5) Orlando has learned many lessons about gender identity as he/she has come full circle through the stages of Death, Love, Poetry, Politics, Society, Sex, and Birth. She leaves us, at the end, with a lesson about the future and perhaps a nod to the film’s author, Potter, as a woman behind the camera. To be a man, or to be a woman, may depend to a large degree on the performance of roles and socially constructed definitions of gender. But until both genders are treated as equals and until the spaces and positions in-between them are fully embraced by social convention, gender identity matters greatly when it comes to self-representation and self-narration. It was Virginia Woolf who declared the importance of ‘a room of one’s own’ for women; if she had lived in the electronic age, she probably would have agreed with Potter on the importance of ‘a camera of one’s own’ as well.


(1) Penny Florence, ‘A Conversation with Sally Potter,’ Screen, Autumn 1993, p. 280.

(2) Sally Potter, Orlando, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, xiii.

(3) Anne Cieko, ‘Transgender, Transgenre, and the Transnational: Sally Potter’s Orlando,’ Velvet Light Trap, Spring 1998, p.24.

(4) Florence, op. cit. p. 282.

(5) Cieko, op. cit. p. 31.

Christina Lane is Assistant Professor in the Motion Picture Program at University of Miami. Her book, Feminist Hollywood: From Born in Flames to Point Break examines the work of contemporary women directors who have made the shift from counter cinema into commercial film-making.

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