‘Orlando, My Political Biography’ Review: A Poetic Trans Manifesto



Virginia Woolf‘s “Orlando: A Biography” is a centuries-spanning tale of a nobleman who, after a slumber that runs through several nights, metamorphoses into a woman. Inspired by and dedicated to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, the classic 1928 novel has long been fodder for feminist and queer readings. The florid tale of a nobleman-cum-woman who fluidly plays with gender and sexuality, is as totemic a text as one can find to illustrate the timely and timeless journeys trans and gender-noncomforning folks have been making for decades (if not centuries). That is precisely what trans filmmaker Paul B. Preciado has done with his brilliant docu-manifesto, “Orlando, My Political Biography.”

Preciado understands how powerful a tale (a trans myth, really) “Orlando: A Biography” remains close to a century since it was first published. With his hybrid documentary, Preciado seeks out to cannibalize Woolf’s text. With voiceover musings and staged narrative vignettes, he ingests Woolf’s text and regurgitates it. In so doing, he creates an ever-refracted modern portrait of this fictional character, who turns out to be template and type for a community of trans, non-binary and gender-noncomforning subjects.

The key gesture of the documentary, in fact, turns out to be the intentional blending of fact and fiction, of story and history, of the literary and the lived-in. Throughout, Preciado introduces us to many Orlandos: “I’m Jenny Bel’Air,” one tells the camera, for instance. “In this film I’ll be Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.” Such a line is repeated every time we meet another Orlando, each of whom dons only a ruff (that pleated collar so associated with the 16th and 17th centuries) so as to create a sense of continuity between them. That disparate continuity is, for Preciado, very much the point. Understanding that trans and gender-nonconforming bodies are contested discursive spaces, the filmmaker is intent on offering a plural and pluralizing vision of Orlando as a trans archetype. It’s why they’re able to be depicted as easily by a self-described “trans boy” with ginger hair as by a trans woman from Venezuela.

“Orlando, My Political Biography” follows Woolf’s text quite closely, at times having these various subjects read from the pages of her novel and at others merely using the talking-heads frame of the doc to retell passages from the novel in their own words. In such moments, every one of Preciado’s Orlandos end up weaving in Woolf’s story with their own: Their “I” is that of Orlando but also their own. It’s how audiences get to hear about a nobleman’s tryst with a flinty love interest named Sasha during the Great Frost as in Woolf’s tale, but also about top surgeries and puberty blockers, about hormone therapy and bureaucratic discrimination. We’re following the novel but also finding said novel to be a way to tell a larger story about trans life and liberation in the years beyond what Woolf first chronicled.

On paper, Preciado’s film sounds too heady — too literate and literary, perhaps. This is a project that’s lofty in its ambitions, after all: “How does one construct an Orlandoesque life, a life of a gender poet in the midst of a binary and normative society?” it asks. With winning humor, it turns out. And an eye for self-conscious filmmaking (Preciado’s voice, camera and even light setups at times, are integral to its stylized metafictional conceit; society is a set and gender a performance, what better way to capture that than to revel in the very constructedness of filmmaking as such?). The film’s aesthetic, which makes room for costuming choices like white tees with silk-screen bras and for stagey sets that evoke Fassbinber and Almodóvar, further creates a trans cinematic archive that reaches back to images of Christine Jorgensen, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riviera to tell a mosaic of a collective story.

If some images are a tad too absurd (several scrubbed-in doctors performing surgery on Woolf’s book, with scalpel in hand; an English-language disco dance number at a doctor’s office with lyrics like “They say you are dysphoric but it’s just metaphoric”), these merely push film and discourse into the realm of camp. Such winking knowingness squarely locates Preciado’s project in conversation with (and in debt to) a long line of queer filmmakers who have similarly used trenchant comedy to make narrative and cultural space for queer and trans folk alike.

With “Orlando, My Political Biography,” Preciado has crafted a towering manifesto that’s as nimble in presenting abstracted gender theorizations as it is in capturing moving emotional truths (credit here must also go to the film’s dynamic editor, Yotam Ben David). The film’s title may well defer to Woolf’s protagonist. But here is a keen-eyed and piercing adaptation that may well transform the way readers of that novel’s fickle, feminist figure will forever understand Woolf’s legacy, on the page and on the screen.


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