As soon as the scroll of credits began across the blackened screen, Eleanor and Dania heard a sound from Gwen they had never heard before: genuine giddiness.
“Ohhhhhh it’s so weird!” Gwen squealed, clutching her knees. She leaned back into the cushion of the couch. “I have so many thoughts. So many. There are so many angles to take! The transgender reading, the cultural shift reading, the adaptation reading…”
Gwen proceeded to list several alternate readings under which the film could be understood, while Dania and Eleanor, who had been lobbing apprehensive looks at each other during the film’s entire duration, sent one final silent glance to each other.
“I don’t even truly know where to start. Although, obviously, there’s one clear place to start: Tilda Swinton. She’s the best part of the film – and yes, I would admit that not everything in it is perfect, I have questions about Queen Elizabeth’s immortality-granting powers. Still, everything is there. You’d need to take time and dig through it, though. I almost want to watch it again. Do you want to watch it again?”
“I’ll pass” was Eleanor’s soft reply, which overlapped with Dania’s more aggressive “No!”
Gwen paused to inhale. “Well,” she said, reassessing the audience. “I suppose it’s just me then.”
“What was that?” Dania bellowed, less out of anger than from genuine befuddlement.
“Tilda Swinton is a man who becomes a woman,” Eleanor summarized, “and then she loses her house…and writes a book about it…”
“Why does she become a woman, though?” Dania’s hands, wrapped together, were tucked behind her head. “And why does she go to the Middle East, and why is everything there made of sand?”
“It’s almost an art film,” Eleanor said. “I shouldn’t limit myself with ‘almost,’ it is an art film. Only an art film would dedicate so much time to shots of Tilda Swinton looking directly at the audience.”
“Right, what was the last shot?” Dania added, gesturing to the screen. “That felt like a full thirty seconds of just staring.”
“I didn’t mind the staring as much,” Gwen said, calmly. “Seeing how they established it early during the first moments of the movie, so it didn’t come out of nowhere.”
“Okay, maybe,” Dania said. “But just because they did it before doesn’t mean it magically makes sense when you do it eight more times.”
“I’m getting a sneaking sense that you didn’t enjoy the film.”
Dania, with her eyes bugged out, swerved her head around to face Gwen. “What…could possibly give you that idea?”
Gwen laughed. True, she had expected the movie wouldn’t go over fantastically with the other two, especially with Dania. Even for herself, Gwen recognized that the very premise was strange. But now, having finally watched the movie after years of recommendations, she had been firmly trapped in the film’s hazy, suspended allure.
Dania, however, seemed to have broken free quite rapidly.
“And then the villain from Titanic shows up,” she continued. “And he’s there for like one scene and then dies, or vanishes, or something…”
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the premise,” Eleanor said. “What happens in the original book?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen admitted. “They apparently made a lot of changes for the film, though. It’s more about Orlando as a character than the world around her.”
“It’s still pretty focused on the world around her,” Eleanor argued. “I mean, tracing what happens in the world around them is the only way I was able to figure out what was going on.”
“And why does the old guy still know that it’s Orlando after she becomes a woman?” Dania added. “I thought it was the thing, where people just don’t notice!”
“I mean, what is the film…about, in your view?” Eleanor asked Gwen. “I know you just saw it, but what do you think?”
“Oh, man,” Gwen groaned. Her eyes searched for the plot somewhere in the black expanse of the screen, where the credits sauntered on. “It’s about – are we talking message and themes, or pure plot?”
“Let’s stick with plot for now,” Eleanor said. “It’ll be harder to nail down one without the other, I feel.”
“Okay, plot. Orlando is a young nobleman, who befriends Queen Elizabeth I…”
“Like you do.”
“And she asks him to be her sort-of liaison, or companion. An aide-de-camp of sorts.”
“And then she gives him eternal life,” Dania added.
“Don’t get ahead of it,” Gwen warned. “She gives Orlando the deed to the house on the condition that he never age or wither.”
“And honestly, I can say that my favorite moment is the shot right after she says that,” Eleanor smiled, “of Orlando lying in bed, thinking ‘how the hell…'”
“Right?” Gwen agreed. “It can be very funny, when it wants to be.”
“But keep going,” Dania insisted. “So then he starts miraculously not aging…”
Gwen nodded. “Right, and then he falls in love with the Russian princess.”
“I never thought that a period drama could contain so many ice skating sequences,” Eleanor commented. “Really well choreographed ice skating sequences, too.”
“Wait, wait, hold on,” Dania said, pulling the conversation back. “I refuse to just skip over the plot point ‘the main character stops aging.'”
“I mean, that’s what happens,” Eleanor said. “I don’t know why either. But the movie doesn’t really work unless she does.”
“But why?” Dania asked, straining. “Can Queen Elizabeth just do that? Has she done it before?”
“I feel the film is more about exploring themes than tackling concrete plot,” Gwen said. “The original Virginia Woolf book has a similar style.”
“I thought you hadn’t read the Virginia Woolf book,” Eleanor said.
“It’s Woolf, everything is an exploration of themes,” Gwen quipped. “In fact, the film likely looks the way it does because of the attempt to transfer Woolf’s writing style to the screen. The direct address from Orlando is like Woolf talking directly to the reader in her writing.”
“It’s not a book, though,” Dania countered. “It’s a movie. It just looks weird.”
“I do agree that with – well, some of the eye contact works,” Eleanor said, wrestling with thoughts. “The moment when Billy Zane falls off his horse and lands in front of her, and she glances towards the camera for just a second – that makes sense to me.”
“It humanizes her,” Gwen said. “We root for her more because we’re able to step out of the narrative and recognize the absurd premise.”
“However,” Eleanor added curtly, “I also think that ending the film on a thirty-second close-up of her face…”
“It wasn’t thirty seconds.”
“It felt like thirty seconds,” Eleanor said. “Or other moments. Like, what’s the moment in the library, where she’s just reading for a second and then we cut back to the narrative?”
“Likely it’s mimicking something from the novel,” Gwen said. “An aside, or something like it.”
“See, that’s the thing,” Dania added. “I feel like you need to know the book, and like the book, and understand the book, in order to get the movie.”
“I haven’t read it,” Gwen said, defensively. “I still enjoyed the film quite a bit. It gives me something to chew on, something to unpack. I want to go back and watch it again. The editing itself is notable – very liberal use of long takes, swinging the camera back and forth.”
“Maybe it’s like…” Eleanor began, before stopping to consider if what she wanted to propose was too obtuse an interpretation. Judging that it wasn’t, she continued: “The camera work is fluid because the gender is supposed to be fluid. Eh?”
Gwen looked to Eleanor with approval and interest, just as Dania’s lips contorted into a flat smirk. “Sure,” Dania said. “I mean, whatever helps it make sense to you.”
“It’s a fairly surface-level technique, but it could be intentional,” Gwen said. “I certainly think the film does a good job establishing and setting up suspension of disbelief, as you do onstage. Not a lot of films do that, but we have a female actress as Orlando, a male actor as Queen Elizabeth, huge jumps in the timeline and costuming…”
“That was a man?” Dania shouted.
“Who, Queen Elizabeth?” Eleanor asked. She stared at Dania, whose gaze indicated she was questioning everything. “Did you think it was a woman?”
“I mean, I wasn’t thinking about it!” Dania replied. “And that makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it.”
“Quentin Crisp,” Gwen said. “You know, he’s not in much of the film, considering he gets a prominent credit.”
“Well, not many people are able to be in much more of the movie than Tilda Swinton,” Eleanor said. “Even Billy Zane, who actually gets poster credit.”
“Maybe they were attempting to sell it as a romance,” Gwen suggested.
“There is a whole lot of love in the movie,” Eleanor observed. “All unrequited, obviously. Or from terrible people.”
“The most interesting scene for me was the – well, now that I’ve said that, there are plenty of scenes that could hold that title,” Gwen revised.
“Which one were you thinking of?”
“I’m intrigued by the first scene after Orlando becomes a woman,” Gwen said. “At the salon, where they keep badmouthing women while referring to them as muses.”
“Yeah,” Dania said. “I mean, hashtag Me Too, girl.”
“But it’s someone coming at that from a previously male angle,” Gwen continued. “Someone who hasn’t thought to question the treatment of women up to that point. It made me consider whether the entire film was about a person – gender neutral, trans, however the modern vernacular defines it – experiencing womanhood from both the outside and in, and given enough time, with the immortality, to decide whatever version of themself this person wants to be.”
“I’m sure queer theorists would go crazy for this movie,” Eleanor suggested.
“That’s how I found it,” Gwen said. “People calling it a ‘lost transgender exploration.’ They’re not wrong.”
“Well, I’m all in support of people being whatever they want to be,” Dania said, getting up from the couch. “Trans, non-binary, agender, whatever. But I think, for my part, I’ll stick to movies rather than experiences, for now.”
Image Credit: The Sally Potter Archive