“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” So commands Queen Elizabeth I to the androgynously beautiful young aristocrat Orlando (Tilda Swinton), the boy she has taken for her lover, and so he obeys, remaining unchanged over four centuries, or almost unchanged. One morning some hundred years later, the lad looks into the mirror while dressing and realizes he has transformed into a woman. “Same person, no difference at all,” she muses. “Just a different sex.” But true as that may be, her social and legal identity is completely redefined.
Tilda Swinton was largely unknown to the filmgoing world when she took on the role of fair, ageless young man who transforms into an ageless woman over the centuries and her androgynous looks evoke 17th century portraits of young male aristocrats. The Oscar-winning actress is of course far more famous today and the visual shock of the transformation no longer so surprising, but the journey is just as fascinating, entertaining and unexpected.
Filmmaker Sally Potter combines the experimental tools and feminist approach of her earlier films with art-house style and more conventional narrative storytelling to find the cinematic counterpart to Virginia Woolf’s writing in this 1992 adaptation of Woolf’s novel “Orlando: A Biography.” Visually, Potter recreates four centuries of British cultural history in painterly images and austerely constructed settings, from Orlando’s lavish manor to the frozen Thames of 17th century London to 18th century Constantinople, in Leningrad and in Uzbekistan. Narratively she plays with conventions and our expectations. Orlando speaks to the audience in brief, often witty asides and decades pass over the course of a single fluid sequence or in a cut. Potter craftily casts queer icon Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth, who plays the part without a hint camp, bringing a sly dignity to the role while also foregrounding the complicated swirl of gender and sexual identity in the film. Within this slightly skewed perspective, the flouncy, flamboyant male fashions and long curly wigs donned for formal meetings and social occasions take an a whole new connotation, especially as Potter explores issues of male friendship and companionship.
The supplements are an impressive collection of archival material. The “Select Scenes Commentary with Sally Potter” is not an audio commentary track but a ten-minute featurette of Potter discussing a few elements of the film in detail, such as the scenes of Orlando’s asides to the camera (her cinematic version of the direct address sequences from the novel, but pared back through the shooting until there are only a few, very brief addresses, “a sort of complicity” she calls it) and the casting of Quentin Crisp (“He is the true queen of England, he’s my idea of royalty,” she confesses, as she describes his presence as way to turn the idea of sex and gender on its head right from the beginning). The documentaries “Orlando Goes to Russia,” which chronicles the two-year efforts of producer Christopher Sheppard and director’s assistant Renny Bartlett to negotiate shooting in Russia, and “Orlando in Uzbekistan,” a video diary by Robert MacNaughton featuring interviews with the cast and crew, are video productions shot on commercial cameras, technically primitive but invaluable production documents. “Jimmy Was an Angel” is an impressionistic look at the shooting of the angel scene with singer Jimmy Somerville, plus there is a video record at the Press Conference from the world premiere screening at the 1992 Venice Film Festival (with very weak audio) and a 13-minute video interview with Potter also from festival.
Black Orpheus (Criterion)
Shot in Rio de Janeiro by a French director, adapting a Brazilian playwright’s take on a Greek myth, with a Brazilian cast and a non-stop beat of Brazilian percussion and Bossa Nova music, the 1959 Black Orpheus offered a look at Brazil’s culture far different from the clichÃ©s seen in Hollywood’s South American romantic fantasies. This showed poor black Brazilians who lived in the shacks in the poor favelas high above the more affluent Rio, a part of the city that Brazil’s government would have preferred to keep the rest of the world from seeing.
This was the world Orson Welles hoped to show in It’s All True, the ambitious project that was cancelled before it had barely begun. But where Welles was determined to show the poverty as well as the exoticism of Carnival, this portrait created its own fantasy of the favelas, all joy and communal idealism and color. It’s a far cry from the Cinema Novo films that more politically motivated directors like Glauber Rocha made in the sixties, and a decidedly romanticized portrait of slum life that films like City of God have put to rest in the past decade. And yet knowing that this is an exoticized portrait of Third World peasants by a European director doesn’t stop me from appreciating the energy and music and dance presented by director Marcel Camus and his cast (a mix of stage actors, musicians and non-professionals) and crew, or from enjoying the fantasy that is on screen.
Adapted from the play “Orfeu do Carnaval” by Brazilian author Vinicius de Moraes, Black Orpheus plays out the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with a black cast in the poor favelas high above the more affluent Rio and through the music and energy and culture of Carnival, where the worlds come together to dance and play and celebrate. In this incarnation, Orfeu (the charming Breno Mello) is a streetcar conductor, his Eurydice (the American-born Marpessa Dawn) an innocent country girl come to the city to flee a mysterious stranger (who appears at Carnival in a death mask), and Orfeu’s trip through the underworld a journey through a maze of hospitals corridors, police station bureaucracy (a haunting vision of empty halls and rooms filled with papers blowing into oblivion) and strange native churches. The vibrant color of the costumes and settings and the energetic beat of the music (in part written and performed by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim) and dance creates an intoxicating atmosphere and director Marcel Camus shoots on location at the real carnival, which adds an element of authenticity and spectacle to the fantastical elements of the tale. This earthy fable won both the Palme dâ€™Or and the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and became one of the most popular foreign films of its day. Fifty years later it is more obviously a European romanticized look at an impoverished Brazilian culture, but the music is infectious, the color photography beautiful and the exotic world just as intoxicating.
Previously available in the no-frills “Essential Art House” series, it now gets a deluxe release in a newly remastered edition on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion. There’s a brief section where the color pulsates into red for a few seconds, possibly an issue with unstable negative elements, but otherwise it is a strong, solid image with brilliant color. The Eastmancolor photography is nothing like the super-saturated hues of the Jack Cardiff Technicolor films of earlier Criterion and Kino Blu-ray releases (like The Red Shoes and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman). This is more earthy and natural, as vivid as the Technicolor shades but in sun-drenched primary colors that blossom on screen as if alive, responsive to the land and the sun as well as the costumes of Carnival, while the lighting in the night shoots forgo realism to remain as responsive to the color against the dark of the night.
Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions feature the feature-length French documentary “Looking For Black Orpheus” from 2005, which revisits the locations, talks to many of the collaborators and discusses the real-life culture of dance, music and poverty of Rio and the favelas, plus new interview featurettes. Gary Giddins and Ruy Castro discuss the music of the film and the origins of Bossa Nova in “Black Orpheus and That Bossa Nova Sound,” film scholar and historian Robert Stam takes on the contrast between European and Brazilian influences in the film in “Revisiting Black Orpheus,” and there are brief archival interviews with director Marcel Camus and star Marpessa Dawn, plus a booklet with an essay by Michael Atkinson. As always, Criterion prices the DVD and Blu-ray at the same suggested retail price, though prices may vary depending on the merchant.