Sally Potter

Sally Potter in Document Journal

Ahead of a retrospective at the Metrograph, the legendary filmmaker reflects on her groundbreaking adaptation of the Virginia Woolf classic

As the poet Sina Queyras wrote of Virginia Woolf earlier this year: “If I close my eyes, I see bodies tumbling through time. I see many bright colors, textures, pleasures, sounds—it is a bacchanal of sensations, [Woolf’s] vision. And through it she stitches a firm line.”

Something similar could be said of the film Orlando (1992), adapted by British filmmaker Sally Potter from Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name. Considered a landmark in queer and feminist film studies, as well as a breakout role for Tilda Swinton, Orlando celebrates the fluidity of both time and gender, tracking the life of the immortal Lord Orlando across four centuries of British history, during which time Orlando also becomes a woman. Woolf’s source material is one-part extended love letter (to Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had an affair), and one-part satire of British culture and its patriarchal traditions of property, inheritance, empire, and marriage. In Potter’s hands, the story of Orlando indulges in a postmodern—even parodic or camp— sensibility, set to the tune of a score that she co-composed. It is a sensory feast—a propulsive, vibrant, playful adaptation that continues to enchant 30 years later.

On the whole, the films of Potter are films that think—they are not satisfied simply to ‘represent’ ideas on the screen, but must wrestle with them, actively, at every level from style to performance. Potter’s work dates to the late ’60s London Film-maker’s Co-op and a subsequent career in choreography, performance art, and theater. Despite her move into narrative features in the late ’80s, however, her taste for experimentation has never waned, even as she has migrated somewhat closer to the ‘mainstream.’ From the iambic pentameter of Yes (2004), to her self-reflexivity and self-representation in The Tango Lesson (1996), to directing the first feature film conceived to be watched on a mobile phone with Rage (2009), Potter’s cinema is morphing, responsive, and uncompromising, unwilling to be easy, and never predictable.

In recognition of Orlando’s 30th anniversary and a major retrospective of Potter’s work opening at Metrograph, Document spoke with Sally Potter about the challenges of adaptation, the legacy of gender and sexuality in film, and how it lives in cinephiles’ minds today.

Tia Glista: What was your relationship to Woolf, and to Orlando more specifically, before you began this project?

Sally Potter: Well, my relationship to Virginia Woolf was one of admiration and intimacy. I think every reader has a very intimate relationship with a writer that you read again and again. You enter their world. Their world enters you. It’s a sort of private space, the reading space, and I was an avid reader as a child and teenager. I still am an avid reader.

I do remember reading the book as a young teenager. I’m guessing fourteen, something like that, and being very, very affected by it—visually, emotionally. The world of ideas that she was presenting excited me, and when I later came to read her diaries and all the other things she had said about writing Orlando, and about how it was received, and all the rest of it, I was fascinated by how she described it visually as wanting to exteriorize consciousness; in other words, find images that would somehow illuminate the way the way the mind works.

But Orlando was, when it came out, trivialized by critics. It was rather light and so on. But it’s not. It’s a serious exploration of ideas with a light touch. And because it was difficult to raise money for the film (and I mean very, very difficult), in the end meant that I had a lot of time— time I didn’t necessarily want—but it gave me time to revise and revise and revise the adaptation, and to figure out really how how to do it, how to turn it into a film.

Tia: I’ve read that you always felt you could visualize the book as a film—what specific images were the most vivid for you, and did any of them make it into the final version?

Sally: The apple seller frozen in the ice, with the apples suspended in the ice around her. That image stayed with me very strongly, and in the end it’s the first thing I shot when I came to shoot the film, and it was obviously very difficult to figure out how to do it, because this was before the days of CGI, so I shot it with a stunt woman in a swimming pool… I think in many ways it was that image that triggered the film. Why that image, I think, is so particular. There’s something about the apple that is sort of mythic, and of course the brutality of this working woman trapped under the ice, being laughed at as this spectacle by the men who are looking down. Because it’s just an image for them, you know. So it felt to me like there was so much going on in that image. That’s where it started.

Tia: This is a film with so much intricate movement, right from the first frame. There is ice skating, and dancing, and that iconic sequence of Orlando’s run through the maze in which she bursts from the 18th-century into the 19th-century. How does your background in dance and choreography come to bear on your filmmaking?

Sally: Hugely. I think first of all, anybody who’s studied dance knows about work and actually how much you need to work to improve. You know you don’t kind of hang around waiting for inspiration. You just go to class every day, and it’s very pragmatic. Anybody who’s done choreography knows what it’s like to stand there thinking, ‘Hmm. Should somebody cross from right to left or left to right or come closer, or be further away? Should this be fast, or should it be slow? And are they far or are they near? Are they at speed? Are they changing direction?’ All those choreographic questions are decisions that, as a director, I’m making all the time. And I’m absolutely sure that all the work that I did as a choreographer, and in performance, and with my own body, informs how I work as a director.

Tia: The costumes by Sandy Powell are also outstanding, and of course, you had to have enough of them to span 400 years of history. So there is the historical side of costuming, but I am also curious about the gendered aspect of making these costumes, and what the film has to say about the relationship between gender and clothing?

Sally: Well, male clothing historically gives much more freedom of movement. Just to put it very basically, you can run. It’s harder to run when you’re wearing crinoline. Harder to breathe when you wear a corset. So I think what the clothes come to evoke is a feeling in the body, and the performative aspect of gender, which is a lot of what Virginia Woolf was writing about. She was not writing about somebody feeling male or feeling female, but rather how they perform what is expected of them by virtue of the gender that is perceived as male or female, and then how they are treated as a consequence. She was talking about oppression, really. Oppression and performance, and not any sense of essential identity.

She was constantly addressing this sense of the sort of illusory self, to cite the Buddhist way of thinking about it. It’s the kind of self that we all circle around and assume we are, but it is not really an identity that can be fixed in any sense, or even deserves to be respected, because we are something much more transcendent, and ephemeral and loose, and then we then get pocketed and bracketed according to how we are perceived. So it was a very, very radical, very sophisticated view of sex and gender, and I think one that would offer a lot to all the current ways of thinking about identity, and about gender, and about sex, and about biology and about oppression.

Tia: At the time around Orlando’s release, you were hesitant to stand too squarely on the label of ‘feminist film,’ due to concerns about the work being pigeonholed or disregarded. And yet Orlando is widely regarded as a feminist, queer, and trans classic. Reflecting on it all now, what do you think makes a film ‘feminist’? It’s an idea that gets thrown around so much these days.

Sally: I don’t find the prefixes to any film particularly useful of any kind; it’s like calling something a ‘Black film.’ I’m sure that the filmmaker, who may have been Black, would want that film to go out into the world on a kind of equally broad and universal basis, even if the subject they’re addressing is race. If you’ve made, let’s say, a film with an all female cast, why should that not be of great interest and curiosity to men? I really, really don’t like this kind of narcissistic trend of people wishing to see [only] their own experience on the screen. For example, everything in Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy has nothing to do with my direct experience, but I adore those films, and will watch them again and again. I learn so much by being deeply moved by the experience of others.

This is a kind of circular way of dealing with your question, because politically, of course, I’m a feminist—but there’s this tendency to want to name films that should have an unrestricted, free journey out into the world to anyone who wants to look at them. That’s part of this resistance on my part. The other is purely experiential, because in the films I made before Orlando, the term ‘feminist’ had been used pejoratively in my case—‘that feminist Sally Potter hates men,’ or something like that. I realized it was being used as a weapon by the other side.

At the time it was very difficult to talk about, because then it began to seem like I was trying to be in denial about feminism. But just look at my films. Look at what they’re doing, and what they’re saying. Why debate about the prefix?

Tia: I think what feels unique and particularly prescient about Orlando’s feminism is that it is very much a film about desolidifying identity categories, and so as you say, it’s very non-essentialist in that regard, very open and fluid in such a forward-thinking way. But it also has a complex relationship to British colonialism. Can you talk about Orlando’s relationship to Empire?

Sally: Well, this is essentially what Virginia Woolf left out. I mean, she lightly skips over ownership, property, royalty. She toys with the sort of clichéd view that the British, and the English in particular, tend to have about their own history, which is nostalgic, and consists solely of the lives of the monarchs. So it’s something I wrestled with deeply at the time and I didn’t feel I could change because it was the media that she’d set in the story, and also because within British history, the ones that are considered, so to speak, to have history, are these aristocratic families, because they’ve all got these family trees and they stay in the same houses. People in other classes, there isn’t a cultural memory about them, and this is, of course, a crime. It’s a crime! And it’s one of the faces of colonialism. But what I tried to do with the book, I tried to get rid of the exoticism that she had in the sequences in Constantinople, and instead, shot the scenes in the Middle East, in Uzbekistan. The vanity and the naivety of the aristocrats who went into other territories and kind of supposedly took on, you know, ‘authority’ over the population, and so on, was very deeply satirized in the film.

I had an uneasy relationship with the entire sort of shadow side of colonialism that is, let’s say, cast over it. But we don’t see it in the film. It’s implied. So that’s the price of an adaptation in a way—you have to some degree to stay within the world view of the writer.

Is that what you meant?

Tia: I meant it quite openly, but I do think that is one of the frustrations of Orlando—the fact that the anti-colonial stance is undercut by the kind of flattening, stereotypical representation of the ‘Eastern’ peoples, who are shown very much from an Othering, Western point of view.

Sally: Do you mean in the film or in the book?

Tia: It’s certainly more acute in the book, but even with the film, I think some people may interpret it as you intended—as critical, as a comment on the naivety of the British—while others may see it as repeating these tropes rather than mocking them, as being offensive.

Sally: I’ve never actually heard anyone say that it’s offensive. But I would be the first to critique it. I’ve been writing stuff about it now—the invisible realities of colonialism and the realities of where the money came from for these great houses, the plundering, and to make the kind of jewels that you see on the costumes, you know, on and on, and on and on. I certainly never wanted to, never had ever, ever any intention of romanticising it. And at the same time, it’s through Orlando’s eyes. So we’re seeing through this naive aristocrat. That’s how we’re seeing until eventually, it’s the present day.

Tia: Exactly, yes.

Sally: I’m painfully aware of what a story like Orlando leaves out. And I’m aware that Virginia Woolf was also a product of her time. I mean, there were people who were right about colonialism at the time, but there weren’t too many novelists who were writing that way. She was, you know, trapped to some extent inside the Bloomsbury group. The worldview of the Bloomsbury set was very middle class, and I would say, limited. They were not revolutionaries. But she was a revolutionary in her art. That’s where she put energy into what she was doing with form and consciousness, and consciousness about gender, but not consciousness about colonialism. Sadly.

Tia: I could talk about all of those complexities in Woolf’s work for hours, but I want to ask you quickly about your new short film, Look at Me, starring Javier Bardem and Chris Rock. It too is so inventive.

Sally: I really enjoyed making it—in this age of questions about duration of the moving image, because of the Internet and streaming, and how we absorb the moving image, [there has] been an enormous sea change, so to work with something condensed to 16, 17 minutes and to find form, shape, development, and concept within that limited period was wonderfully challenging and incredibly interesting.

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