When Sally Potter's free-wheeling Orlando came to the Sundance film festival in 1993, it didn't exactly fit the profile of a festival breakout. It wasn't a regional character drama like Gas Food Lodging or Mississippi Masala. It wasn't handmade and idiosyncratic like sex, lies, and videotape or Slacker. It wasn't a blood-spattered action picture, like Reservoir Dogs—or a micro-budget Cinderella story like the movie that would make the biggest splash at the fest of '93, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi.
That year, Orlando must have seemed awfully Merchant Ivory-ish. A costume pageant at Sundance? Based on a minor book by dorm-room staple Virginia Woolf? Gender politics and bewigged British noblemen prancing around in tights?
To rewatch Orlando 17 years later—it's being re-released this week—is to marvel at just how sui generis the movie was, and what a miracle it was that it captured the film-going public's imagination. (The movie took in more than $5 million at the box office and garnered two Oscar nominations.) Its influence is still being felt—not only because its mix of the ornate and the offhand has become so prevalent an aesthetic in the indie world, but because its behind-the-scenes artists, all of them veterans of Britain's 1980s experimental-film scene, have filtered into the mainstream.
And, of course, there's Tilda Swinton, whose genre-bending performance as the gender-bending Orlando set her on a unique path as one of the major actresses of her generation, and a patient collaborator whose ability to nurture long-simmering projects is responsible for some of the most nongeneric movies of the last few years, like the current arthouse hit I Am Love.
Swinton's performance in Orlando combines emotional acting and "nonperformance," as Swinton calls it in a terrific interview this week with David Schwartz at Moving Image Source. Swinton, having spent years working with the experimental auteur Derek Jarman less as an actress than as an intuitive performer—posing silently and improvising dances on-screen—seized upon Orlando as an opportunity "to really examine this thing of not acting at all, and being in front of the camera in a variety of shapes and sizes, but with contact with the audience, through the prism of the lens." Indeed, time and again, Swinton's Orlando looks straight into our eyes—not unlike Jim on The Office—bemused by the chaos of centuries surrounding her.
But it's not just Swinton's performances—first as a nobleman, then as a woman, then as a lover, then as a mother—that drive the film. Orlando is a movie deeply fascinated by performance, and so over and over again, we see characters putting on shows. Orlando recites poetry to Queen Elizabeth, who is herself played, in drag, by gay icon Quentin Crisp. Orlando stumbles across actors playing Othello's death scene. ("Terrific play," she tells us.) During the Great Frost of 1603, Orlando visits the Russian ambassador on the frozen Thames, and a serpentine of ice-skating waiters deliver victuals in a kind of dance interlude.
In the movie's centerpiece, Orlando—now a woman—faces off with the great wits of 1750 in a competing set of oratory performances. Swift, Pope, and Addison all pronounce upon the uselessness of women—"Present company excepted, of course," Addison simpers—and Orlando, powdered and wigged, steels her courage and fights back. "Gentlemen, I find it strange," she says, her face flushed. "You are poets, each one of you, and speak of your muse in the feminine. And yet you appear to feel neither tenderness nor respect towards your wives or towards females in general."