“Life Is Radically Nonbinary”

Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography (2023)

A new issue of Senses of Cinema went up over the weekend, featuring articles on Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu (2006), Lucile Hadžihalilović’s 1998 short Good Boys Use Condoms, and Bahram Beyzaie’s The Stranger and the Fog (1974), a highlight of the Revivals program at this year’s New York Film Festival. There are also book reviews, festival reports, profiles of John Woo and Elizabeth Taylor, Michelle Carey’s movingly personal remembrance of the late writer and programmer Bérénice Reynaud, two roundtables on horror, and a good handful of interviews.

Two of the interviewees have nonfiction films shortlisted for the European Film Awards to be presented in Berlin next month. With Our Body, Claire Simon offers a series of intimate encounters with female patients at a public hospital in Paris. As an exploration of these women’s various experiences with their own bodies, the film isn’t all that thematically distant from Orlando, My Political Body, the debut feature from writer, philosopher, and curator Paul B. Preciado and the winner of the Encounters Special Jury Prize and a Teddy Award at the Berlinale back in February.

Opening at New York’s Film Forum on Friday before traveling across North America, Orlando, My Political Biography is a multifaceted set of reenactments and interpretations of passages from Virginia Woolf’s time- and gender-bending 1928 novel. Talking to artist and filmmaker Mike Hoolboom in Senses, Preciado contends that Woolf is “a nonbinary author. She struggles with the condition of being a woman and doesn’t know how to relate to her own body. Much of her suffering was because she couldn’t adapt to expected roles, there was no way she could express herself besides her own way of writing. She speaks like the water, and then a character, and then the wind. This became a methodology for the film, a fluid way of going from the words of Orlando to the words of the characters, to my own voice.”

In Cinema Scope, Holden Seidlitz finds that Orlando “makes the case for poetic documentary—which refuses narrative expectations of chronology and relies on playful resignification—as the most suitable mode for a queer adaptation.” Orlando is, as Mark Asch writes at Screen Slate, “a polyvocal film that also avoids binaries of fiction and nonfiction.” A multiracial and multigenerational cast of around two dozen individuals take on the role of Orlando, blending lines from Woolf’s novel with their own stories.

“As the voices interweave and sometimes overlap,” writes Farihah Zaman at Reverse Shot, “the work begins to transcend both the individualistic and the monolithic, and recasts Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography as the story of a community, or what could be the story of humanity, if more people were open to understanding what their trans siblings have already learned about our shared capacity for metamorphosis. When perception of trans identity by the mainstream can be so remarkably reductive, the idea of creating an expansive universe to hold many more selves is one of Preciado’s many acts of political lyricism.”

“Preciado’s own biography and geography are less important than a truth both he and Woolf wink at,” writes Thora Siemsen at 4Columns, “that we are all Orlandos, all capable of reinvention.” On one hand, as Preciado tells Hoolboom, the “political regime in which we live in is a normative binary system,” but on the other: “Life is radically nonbinary in its multiplicity.”

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