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Orlando, My Political Biography

Transgender philosopher-filmmaker Paul B. Preciado's "Orlando, My Political Biography" starts with footage of the filmmaker on a city street at night, wheatpasting posters with slogans, questions, and cryptic statements, and only becomes more playfully abstruse from there. The film is "political" in that politics are personal, and less of a biography than a work of literary criticism in cinematic form and an essay on art, society, and sexual identity that roams wherever it wants or needs to. 

It's framed as a reply to Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando, whose protagonist goes to sleep one night as a man and awakes as a woman, then moves through time that way. (Thirty years ago, Sally Potter directed a now-beloved film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton.) Preciado is fascinated by the Woolf book and respectful of its impact but also irked by how it glossed over the details of the process by which Orlando was transformed. 

The film takes an "I am Spartacus" approach to the text, casting an assortment of trans and nonbinary performers as a gallery of incarnations of Orlando or as people who give their first name as Orlando (including Oscar S Miller and Janis Sahraoui), plus one who plays the actual Woolf character. Then it puts them in dramatic or comedic sketches (and in some cases, tableaus that feel almost like art installations, sometimes with visible lighting rigs) and lets them muse on the process of transitioning and the obstacles placed in the paths of individuals trying to do it. 

One sequence shows a group of Orlandos waiting in a doctor's office who can prescribe hormones. Back in the doctor's office, one of the Orlandos is asked intrusive and leading questions about their feelings about their genitalia, and a subsequent conversation between Orlandos reveals that one has to lie to the doctor and say that you hate your genitals to get the prescription—one of many examples of how people's right to determine their own identity and presentation is held hostage by the rest of society, including the appointed gatekeepers of the medical establishment.

"Orlando, My Political Biography" is an example of the kind of movie that rarely gets made or released today, and that wasn't all that common even during the heyday of quasi-experimental arthouse cinema. Appropriately, considering the subject matter, it refuses to get pinned down to prescribed labels or meanings or even genres, leaping freely between different storytelling modes, sometimes without much of a segue to smooth over the jump. It doesn't hang together in any conventional way, and sometimes it seems to wander into a cul-de-sac and get stuck. But you always appreciate the refusal to be bound by any preexisting playbook of how cinema is supposed to do, well, anything. It's a work of fertile imagination that takes every step confidently, even if it isn't certain where it will lead.

Preciado, a Spaniard from a modest background, has an outsider's posturing energy and a low, scratchy voice that evokes the narrated essay films of the older Jean-Luc Godard. The movie's use of text is also Godardian (the font is similar to the ones Godard used in some of his pre-80s movies). So is the willingness to throw the audience into the deep end of the pool and expect them to swim.

Introducing himself as the first of many Orlandos, Preciado tells us that somebody once asked him why he never wrote a book about his own experience. “Because f**king Virginia Woolf wrote my biography in 1928,” he replied, a statement that is both true and not true and which the film proceeds to illustrate at its own pace and on its own terms. Woolf, Preciado tells us, found a way to hint at the story of trans and genderqueer people before there were words to describe them. "You have never been as alive as now," he says.

In limited release today.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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