From Boys Don’t Cry (2000) to The Danish Girl (2015) to Kokomo City (2023), narrative and documentary films that portray the experiences of trans people tend to be punctuated, if not dominated, by moments of violence. For anyone even moderately aware of the transphobia at large within both political and medical institutions, this should not prove surprising. The credits to Kokomo City (a film I reviewed favorably in August) acknowledge the untimely death of Black trans sex worker Koko Da Doll, a central figure in the film who was shot down by a teenager in Atlanta. My own home state of Missouri is the latest to ban gender-affirming medical care for minors.
But what if depictions of the trans experience were not fundamentally defined by struggle and were instead liberatory — even joyful? What if gender nonconformism were a source of both autonomous pleasure and resistance? These are but a few of the reasons why writer and philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s debut film Orlando: My Political Biography offers a refreshing, refulgent change of pace. Embracing the exuberance of Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, Preciado prizes creative passion over pathology, and trades individual trauma for collective and individual transcendence.
Casting more than 20 trans and nonbinary people as the eponymous star — an aristocratic young man who, halfway through Woolf’s novel, suddenly wakes up fully at home in a woman’s body — Orlando scans as both a performative documentary and cinematic manifesto. “Someone once asked me, ‘Why don’t you write your biography?’” Preciado shares in the first scene, wheatpasting casting call posters onto Parisian facades. His reply is: “Because Virginia Woolf wrote my fucking biography in 1928.”
The film oscillates through time as each participant becomes a version of Orlando. “I’m Janis Sahraoui,” declares the first protagonist, dragging a roller suitcase through a dappled wood. “In this film, I’ll be Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.” Pairing a frilly ruff with a wide array of streetwear, the Orlandos role play vital scenes from the novel, bringing the original text into contemporary contexts, often for comedic effect. Mingling dialogue from the book between Orlando and Queen Elizabeth with a contemporary exchange with a psychiatrist (played by acclaimed actor Frédéric Pierrot), Liz Christin’s Orlando dismisses the idea that their trans identity has any connection to how they were raised. “Would you say your father is masculine?” asks the shrink. “Yes, very masculine,” Orlando retorts with smirk. “He went on the Crusades and brought back a lot of Moorish heads.”
Through her protagonist’s revelations, Woolf gestures to the ways in which concepts of femininity (and, by extension, masculinity) are hardly inherent to biological sex. “[F]or women are not … obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled by nature,” Orlando realizes shortly after her gender transformation in the novel. “They can only attain these graces … by the most tedious discipline.” Echoing Judith Butler’s canonical 1990 study Gender Trouble, Preciado throws such gendered performance into relief time and time again, while also acknowledging the limits of Woolf’s perspective. “[Y]ou represented us trans people as aristocrats in colonial England,” he reflects. “[Y]ou didn’t know, perhaps, this is not how one becomes trans …. We risk our lives every time.”
While acknowledging these very real risks, the film ultimately celebrates a utopian future 100 years after Orlando’s publication. In the final scene, all Orlandos gather in a wood-paneled courtroom as their genders are officially approved by an imagined French government; feminist writer Virginie Despentes plays the judge who stamps their IDs. “I declare the abolition of assignment of sexual difference at birth …,” she begins. “Thus, I grant planetary, nonbinary citizenship to …” slowly listing each Orlando by their chosen name. Her left arm sleeved in tattoos, the judge’s action suits both the punk rock impudence and literary piety characterizing the film from the start.
As each actor rises to approach the stand — some short, some tall, some old, some young, some thin, some stout, representing multiple ethnicities — the rest of the room cheers. Does this fantasy suggest that Preciado’s “political biography” — and the stories of the film’s 26 Orlandos — is somehow complete, that “planetary, nonbinary citizenship” is imminent, or even probable? As a cisgender woman, I didn’t take it that way. Rather, I saw the riotously happy ending as a “fuck you” to the state and to lawmakers who refuse individuals autonomy over their bodies and genders. However far off, a better future is not possible if we cannot first imagine it.
Orlando: My Political Biography opens in theaters November 10.