Freak Orlando (1981)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Orlando (1992)

The phrase has recently devolved into something of a critical cliché, but I find myself becoming increasingly possessed by the idea of “pure cinema.” In the modern pop culture push to blur the lines between what is cinema and what is a video game, television series, or “virtual reality experience,” I find myself receding into the comforts of art that can only be expressed through the medium of film. “Pure cinema” titles like The Neon Demon, The Duke of Burgundy, and Beyond the Black Rainbow, with their hypnotic tones & basic indulgences in the pleasures of sound synced to moving lights, have been the movies that captured my imagination most in recent years and I often find myself chasing their aesthetic in other works. Sally Potter’s 1992 fantasy piece Orlando delivered my much-needed pure cinema fix with such efficiency and such a delicate hand that I didn’t even fully know what I was getting into until it was maybe a third of the way through. Initially masquerading as a costume drama with a prankish dry wit, Orlando gradually develops into the transcendent pure cinema hypnosis I’m always searching for in my movie choices. It pulls this off in such a casual, unintimidating way that it’s not until the final scene that the full impact of its joys as a playful masterpiece becomes apparent. This is the exact kind of visual and tonal achievement that could only ever be captured in the form of a feature film, a cinematic reverie that’s nothing short of real world magic.

I’m not sure why Tilda Swinton kept making films after she already found her perfect role in 1992. Orlando is essentially a one-woman show that finds Swinton navigating the only place where her unearthly presence makes any sense: the distant past. Playing the titular role of Orlando, a fictional (male) royalty from a Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, Swinton looks all too at home in her costume drama garb, as if the actor were plucked from a 17th Century painting. Orlando is a nervous little fella, often breaking the fourth wall with Ferris Bueller-type asides to the camera to alleviate his anxious tension. Early on, he finds himself squirming under the seductive scrutiny of Queen Elizabeth (played by an ancient Quentin Crisp, another genius choice of gender-defiant casting). The Queen promises that Orlando may retain possession of and lordship over his family’s land as long as he obeys a simple command, “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” He keeps this promise through an unexplained triumph of the will & fairy tale logic, living on for centuries in his youthful, androgynous state. The only change in Orlando’s physicality is that after a brief experience with the masculine horrors of war, he transforms into a woman. She explains to the camera, “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” This shift is treated less like a huge rug pull and more like an internal, gender specific version if the identity shift in Persona. It’s a casual, fluid transition that leads to interesting changes in how Orlando experiences love, power, and property ownership, but had little effect on her overall character. Time continues to move on from there, decades at once, and the movie shrugs it off, concerned with much more important issues of identity & sense of self.

Besides the refreshing way it casually disrupts the rigidity of its protagonist’s gender, Orlando is impressive in the way it’s narrative structure more like a poem than a traditional A-B feature. Segmented into sequences titled (and dated) “1600: DEATH,” “1650: POETRY,” “1750: SOCIETY,” etc., Orlando reads more like a collection of stanzas than a period piece or even a fairy tale typically would. Its isolated meditations on topics like “LOVE,” “SEX,” and “POLITICS” shake it free from any concerns of having to fulfill a three act structure, allowing characters like Queen Elizabeth or a sexed-up Billy Zane drift through Orlando’s life without any expectation of achieving their own arc. Each piece is a contribution to the larger puzzle of Orlando’s curiously long & gender-defiant life. When seen from a distance, the big picture of this puzzle is pure visual poetry. Scenes are short, amounting to a hypnotic rhythm that allows only for a visual indulgence in a series of strikingly beautiful images: Swinton’s impossibly dark eyes, Sandy Powell’s world class costume design, love, sex, war, heartbreak. If you had to distill Orlando down to an image or two, there’s a scene where a living tableau is staged on ice as dinner entertainment and a soon-to-follow dramatic performance featuring traditional Shakespearean crossdressing that’s disrupted by loud, but oddly beautiful fireworks. They’re entertainments created solely for the sake of their own visual beauty, a spirit the movie captures in its sweeping fairy tale of a life that never ends.

Sally Potter makes this pure cinema aesthetic feel not only casual & effortless, but also frequently humorous. Orlando’s knowing glances to the audience are a prototype version of a mockumentary style later popularized by shows like The Office and the magical realism of their gender fluidity is often treated like a kind of joke, especially when they declare things like, “The treachery of men!” or “The treachery of women!” The final scene of the film perfectly nails home this half fantastic/half humorous tone as well, playing something like a divine prank. I feel like I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen that achieve this balance of dry wit and visual opulence: The Fall, Ravenous, The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover, Marie Antoinette, and maybe Tale of Tales. I’d consider each of those works among the greatest films I’ve seen in my lifetime and after a single  viewing I’m more than willing to list Orlando among them. My only disappointment in watching Sally Potter’s masterful achievement is that I’m not likely to ever see it projected big & loud in a proper movie theater setting. Watching it at home on the same television where I’d steam a Netflix series or a pro wrestling PPV felt like an insult to a movie that deserves a much more grandiose environment. It is, after all, pure cinema.

-Brandon Ledet