If there’s any one arthouse auteur whose films I’m desperate to track down right now, it’s Ulrike Ottinger. Her filmography still promises the thrill of discovery in a way her New German Cinema contemporaries no longer can, as their work has been routinely assessed & dissected over the decades while hers has been locked away, collecting dust. Surely, the recent critical push to rediscover & reappraise ignored female auteurs will inevitably result in an Ulrike Ottinger boxset from Kino or Criterion or some other film-snob curator. Her kinky, high-fashion, Lesbian cinema holds an enigmatic cool that can currently only be enjoyed in Google Image results (legally, at least), as most of her work lacks any proper American distribution. However, individual Ottinger films have populated in niche online streaming spaces over the past year, suggesting that a broader critical interest in her work is growing. Last summer, I was able to watch her feminist ode to alcoholism, Ticket of No Return, for free via the We Are One Global Film Festival. And now, this summer, The Criterion Channel has added Freak Orlando—her abstract perversion of the Virginia Woolf novel Orlando—to their Pride Month streaming package. These individual releases were frustrating in their obscurity and distance apart, but that presentation did help make them feel like an Event in a way most home viewing experiences have failed to over the past year. Each bite-size morsel of Ulrike Ottinger’s filmography feels like a small appetizer enjoyed one locked door away from the entire buffet.
With a year’s anticipation between them, I think I personally got more out of watching the more linear, coherent Ticket of No Return than I did its direct follow-up. “A theater of the world in five episodes”, Freak Orlando often feels more like a collection of performance art pieces than it does an actual Movie (especially in the way scenes defiantly loiter long past their welcome). The individual images in its living tableaus are undeniably sublime, but their overall effect swings wildly from patience-testing to hilarious to outright shrill with no concern for tonal modulation. Ottinger’s style lands much closer to Derek Jarman’s abstract, queer-punk headscratchers than it does to the aggro melodramas of R.W. Fassbinder, her New German Cinema contemporary. Some of her intended humor is lost across culture & time, but you can tell there’s a flippancy to her work that deliberately disregards both audience and critical expectations. I can’t even tell you with any certainty where the five individual “episodes” of Freak Orlando start and end; my only anchor in the film is Orlando themself – the one actor who maintains the same role throughout while all other feature players try on new personae from vignette to vignette. Still, I enjoyed being mesmerized and confounded by the experience. And I can easily see how being trapped in a movie theater with the film—unable to be distracted from its long, repetitive tableaus—would have made it even more abrasively hypnotic. That environment enhanced Jarman’s The Garden greatly, anyway, which is my closest reference point to what Freak Orlando appears to be up to.
Our titular time & gender traverser arrives at the gateway to Freak City, makes a brief pitstop to suck on Mother Nature’s teet, then proceeds to integrate themself among the freaks within. Orlando is presented mostly as a bearded lady in dominatrix gear (one of many in Freak City, it turns out), who takes a centuries-long tour of various horrors of violence and oppression leveled upon society’s marginalized outcasts. I won’t make any concrete guesses how individual tableaus like 1950s housewives tending to ovens on a castle lawn or a crucified Christ singing opera in a Taffy Davenport dress relate to that central theme, but the overall feeling is that social outcasts are inevitably steamrolled by the fascist majority – a tragedy that repeats itself across time as a cultural routine. This isn’t a misery piece by any stretch, though. In every instance of fascist violence, the oppressed freaks band together as a tight-knit, self-celebratory community, often with Orlando as their figurehead. The concluding vignette hammers this point home with an adorable talent show thrown by The Society of Ugly People, who have welcomed Orlando into their ranks with a “One of us!” style ceremony à la Tod Browning. If there’s any central thesis to Freak Orlando it might be that “a pain shared is almost half a pleasure”; this world may be shit for the freaks among us, but at least we have each other. Framing the film with any kind of clear meaning or messaging feels a little reductive, though. In a lot of the individual scenes you can tell Ottinger is just having fun projecting weird shit onto the screen, which is its own half a pleasure.
Like all visual fetishists, Ottinger has perverse fun with the costuming of the fascist state of Freak City, dressing its citizens in clear plastic future-couture and its military in leather kinkster gear. The film might be reluctant to participate in any straight-forward narrative cohesion, but it’s feverishly committed to pushing the D.I.Y. fantasyscape of its production design & costuming to the furthest possible extreme. Even when you’re lost about what’s happening or why, there’s still plenty to gawk at. It’s like recalling the details of a dream you had directly after watching Jarman’s Jubilee or John Waters’s Desperate Living – just as grimy as the films proper but much looser in its logic and sense of purpose. I personally crave a little more of a narrative anchor than what Freak Orlando felt like offering me, which is likely why I slightly prefer flippant nihilism of Ticket of No Return. Still, the ideas and images bursting out of this strange beast suggest there’s much, much more to discover in Ottinger’s inaccessible back catalog. There will likely come a time when all of her work is readily available and I’ll burn myself out by binging it in bulk; for now, every morsel offered is a delectable tease that has me salivating for more.