Ariel [1988] – A Distinctively Bittersweet Drama from the Minimalist Master

Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki’s tightly controlled cinema mostly surveys the bleakness in human existence of proletarian or downtrodden variety; not that his bleak vision of Helsinki city is drenched in miserabilism. Mr. Kaurismaki instead uses black, deadpan humor and a sense of unreality to tackle the grimness of the social situation. It is this exacting focus on darkly funny absurdities that plagues his chain-smoking dispossessed people endlessly appeals to me. The proletariat trilogy - loose triad of movies concentrating on the down-on-luck working-class protagonists - made Kaurismaki popular among the cinephiles and film-makers around the world (American indie film-maker Jim Jarmusch has repeatedly championed his films). Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990) are all minimalist tragicomedies, whose heroes are garbage-picker, miner, and assembly-line worker respectively. Ariel is the most sweet-natured, hopeful tale among the three, while my favorite is Match Factory Girl, a savage comedy that’s often compared to the top-notch works of Robert Bresson.

The funny quotient of Kaurismaki’s dramas lies in the deadpan dialogue delivery. All his actors carry a stony face and the emotions of love, sadness, anger, and desire never bursts through this hard surface. But Kaurismaki never reduces them to a parody or makes fun of them. On the contrary, their silent determination beneath the tight-jawed expression makes them lovable. Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajalo) in Ariel is one such adorable straight-faced guy. The rural coal mine where he works is closed and before long his miner father commits suicide. Taisto withdraws all his life’s savings from the bank, and takes for the city in a white Cadillac controvertible whose top won’t close. 

Shortly after reaching the city, he is hit over the head with a bottle by couple of hooligans and the guy’s entire savings robbed. This is just one in the string of misfortunes that await Taisto. But he also finds love with Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), a single mother working multiple jobs. They meet in a typical Kaurismaki-ian fashion: Irmeli works as meter maid and serves Taisto a parking ticket. Then they have dinner. He drops him at her apartment, waiting for her to ask him to spend the night. She says I’m divorced and have a little son, to which Taisto replies that he wouldn’t mind a ready-made family than making a family of his own. Since it has already become dark, Irmeli invites him. They go to bed and later Taisto smokes before sleeping.

These exchanges that utterly lack a touch of emotion or irony, however, aren’t similar to the emotional detachment found in the film-makers of Greek New Wave, particularly Yorgos Lanthimos. The dead-end existences lead by Kaurismaki’s characters doesn’t provide due emotional outlets to express their inner spirit. Nevertheless, these people’s warmth and humanity are subtly suggested in their little actions which dispense cruelty and listlessness of the hermetically-sealed dour surroundings. Very soon, Taisto, Irmeli and her boy Riku become a family unit, but Taisto’s luck doesn’t hold out for long. He ends up in jail under a false charge. Matti Pellonpaa, Kaurismaki’s regular actor, plays Mikkonen who shares the jail cell with Taisto. Interestingly, not much difference is seen in the dispassion found outside and inside the prison. Subsequently, the pair plots to get out of jail, get entangled in a bad deal with seedy men, rob a bank, and eventually decide to flee the unremittingly bleak situation for a distant, alleged paradise.

Plot wise, a lot happens in Ariel (from whirlwind romance to prison-break and violent confrontation), although as usual Kaurismaki’s minimalistic, subversively funny tone pares-down the grand dramatic upheavals. Kaurismaki often mixes gritty realism with his own wish-fulfillment fantasies. This oxymoronic approach is best found earlier while perceiving Taisto as an unemployed victim of oppressive socioeconomic system and later when Taisto becomes a film-noir hero (a reference to Humphrey Bogart starrer ‘High Sierra’ is made earlier) who dreams of escaping to a faraway dreamland. The perfect inclusion of soundtracks once again plays a pivotal role in the narrative.

 The songs & music offer emotions where it is drained of any color (the Finnish rendition of Wizard of Oz’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ is played towards the end when the fugitive and family looks at the cruise ship, giving us the taste of their yearning and optimism). Remarkably shot by Kaursimaki’s regular DP Timo Salmonen, the distant, stationary camera placements never tries to glamorize the poor proletarians. Unlike Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach, Aki Kaurismaki doesn’t try to acutely highlight the resilience and miseries of proletarian population. He simply wants us to feel the absurdity of such a drab existence, a life without hope made possible by dispassionate bureaucracy. Once the director conveys this aspect, he seeks for a kind of liberation for his characters that’s unfettered by reality. The liberation could be sweet as in Ariel or savage as in Match Factory Girl.

Overall, Ariel (72 minutes) represents one among the many triumphs of Aki Kaurismaki’s minimalist film-making methods. The director’s captivating cinematic economy must be championed in this era of sensory and visual over-load. 

Shadows in Paradise [1986] – A Wryly Humorous Tale of Human Connection and Social Alienation

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki basically tells the same stories again and again. And similar to the works of the masterful Japanese film-maker, the repetition and familiarity in Kaurismaki’s works bestows more pleasure than boredom. Of course, many might be left puzzled by the style and sensibility with which the film-maker stages his stony-faced tragicomedies. Yet the profound stillness I observe in his scenes-- including the still human body-- says something interesting about the implacable void surrounding the lives of modern human beings, and goes on to challenge the ideological and economic mores of the ‘globalized’ society.

The list of distinct aesthetic choices, motifs, and character sketches prevalent in Aki Kaurismaki’s features came to sharp focus starting from his third feature film, Shadows in Paradise ('Varjoja paratiisissa', 1986) – the first part in his unofficial ‘Proletariat Trilogy’. Kaurismaki’s protagonists are often ordinary working-class outcasts of Helsinki. Though Kaurismaki emphasizes on humanism and strives to find glimmer of hope, some can find his worldview to be decidedly acerbic as social injustice and existential frustration persistently consumes his quirky, reclusive blue-collar characters. Shadows in Paradise, however, flit between a tone of droll comedy and poignancy. You could even say that reclusiveness, reticence, and depression were never treated with such an undercurrent of humor (without overtly making fun of the misfit characters).

Shadows in Paradise, similar to the director’s recent works (Le Havre, The Other Side of Hope), take fanciful turns and possesses a fairy-tale like quality, unlike his grimly funny The Match Factory Girl (1990) - clearly his best work, in terms of both style and theme. And Kaurismaki often attempts to show what the severities in a sterile work environment can do to a soul. But the writer/director uses blunt, wry humor to distill some of the bleakness prevailing in this type of human existence. The humor employed occasionally laughs at the characters’ efforts to dispel the gloominess in their life (leading to them seeking life companions). But despite an allegedly caricatured or stereotypical portrayal of Finnish solitary soul, Kaurismaki gradually and movingly zeroes-in on his character’s yearning for real human connection.

Shadows in Paradise revolve around garbage man, Nikander (Matti Pellonpaa). His elderly compadre at work invite Nikander to join at the new garbage company he’s about to open. In one of their cheerless exchanges, the older man says, “I’m not going to die behind a wheel”. “Then where?”, asks Nikander, to which the other curtly replies, “behind a desk.” Nevertheless, on a work day the older man keels over and dies due to heart attack. Naturally, Nikander consciously wakes up to the fact of his ridiculous existence. Out of desperation, he makes advances on the sad-eyed, washed-out blonde, Ilona (Kati Outinen), who works as the check-out assistant at the local supermarket. Nikander, however, only messes up his first-date with Ilona as he takes her to a scruffy place to play bingo. Probably not as bad as Travis Bickle’s choice of place for first-date, but still Ilona bursts out of the place. But when Ilona finds herself in trouble at work, she turns to Nikander, who takes her out to dinner.

Before long, Ilona moves in with him. Since she has nowhere else to go (having lost the job), it seems like a relationship of convenience than one born out of tenderness and love. Much of the bittersweet quality in the narrative comes from Nikander and Ilona’s inability to communicate with each other; to burst the bubble of their solitude. The drab, working-class environments of Helsinki comes off as a significant character, keeping the lonely souls confined within the environment; the couples’ attempt to enter into to the posh-restaurant for a date doesn’t happen (in another scene a hotelier working at a decent hotel lists room prices to homeless Ilona, only to eventually say that they are out of rooms). The alienation and loneliness, however, keeps bringing them both together, if not to seek romance at least to discern the contentment in human connection. Kaurismaki also gifts these battered souls a happy ending; his own way of scoffing at the goddamn reality.

Aki Kaurismaki perfectly pruned-narrative might strictly revolve around the proletarians, but the deadpan irony and the absurdist streak encountered in his oeuvre is pretty similar to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch (in fact, Mr. Jarmusch has cited Kaurismaki as an influence). The two independent film-makers weave their own brand of visual poems on social alienation, the narrative unfolding amidst worn-out industrial settings (seedy apartments, dirty bars, etc.) Both Jarmusch and Kaurismaki’s characters frequently self-reflects on the ‘grass is greener’ perspective. For example, in Jarmusch’s 1984 film, Stranger than Paradise, a character quips: “You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new an'... and everything looks just the same.” In Shadows in Paradise, Ilona speaks of her aunt in America who has seen only other Finns and Donald Ducks (moreover, Ilona doesn’t feel great when she gets into that posh restaurant with another man). Such stale, misaligned conventions of utopian paradise aren’t for these no-nonsense people.

Aki Kaurismaki, unlike his kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch or the film-makers whom he revere -Ozu & Bresson - enhances his work by persistently tackling serious sociopolitical themes. He opens Shadows in Paradise by showcasing the dynamic action of two garbage men throughout the day, which he later contrasts with the stasis in their normal life outside the work place; a sequence which he later perfected in the stylistically superior opening scene of The Match Factory Girl. It also adds to the deeper sense of irony that these working-class people find meaning in labor, whereas the life outside disorients them as the etiquette to survive modern life keeps baffling them. What’s intriguing is the overbearing banality Kaurismaki displays both inside and outside the work space. Dance halls multiply anxieties and humiliation, while materialistic consumption only deepens the emptiness.

 The ‘shadow’ in the title might refer to the oppressive social stratification in capitalist societies ruining the eccentric individuals’ idea of paradise. Or maybe Kaurismaki, as usual, ironically observes how his protagonists are perceived as the ‘shadows’ haunting the fairy-tale version of the capitalist paradise. 

A Cry in the Dark [1988] – There are worse things in our world than a baby-eating-dingo

Australian film-maker Fred Schepisi often deals with conflicts within communities or a family brought upon by destructive forces. His directorial debut, The Devil’s Playground (1976) was a witty and shrewd examination of the sexual repression and other constraints within a Catholic seminary. He followed it up with one of the best works in his oeuvre, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), based on the 1972 novel of same name by Thomas Keneally (who also wrote the Booker-prize winning novel Schindler’s Ark in 1982). The titular character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a half-aborigine who gets bombarded with abuse from his white employers. At one point, his anger reaches a breaking point. Jimmie takes an ax to a houseful of children and women, and commits a horrifying massacre. In the process, the exploited Aboriginal man becomes a feared outlaw (the novel is based on the real story of bush-ranger Jimmy Governor). Even though, Mr. Schepisi details Jimmie’s brutal slaying of a white family in a disturbing manner, his views are all-inclusive, questioning the prejudices of white establishment that led the Aboriginal man to perpetrate a horrific act. 

In the 1980s, Fred Schepisi started making films in US, including a decent western (‘Barbarosa’) and a comedy starring Steve Martin (‘Roxanne’). With the 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark (aka Evil Angels) Schepisi returned to Australia which was based on a major news story that made waves in and around Australian continent. Mr. Schepisi co-wrote the script with Robert Caswell; the tragic true event detailed in John Bryson’s non-fiction book (Evil Angels) remained as the source for the script. Although the events in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ take place after lot of decades than the crime detailed in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the director’s focus lies in portraying how a prejudiced society and the court of public opinion paints everything in black-and-white. 

The protagonist in A Cry in the Dark leads a far better life than the oppressed Aboriginal lead character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Lindy Chamberlain (Meryl Streep) is the wife of a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, Michael (Sam Neill) and a doting mother of two little sons and a infant daughter. The film opens with the christening of Lindy’s nine-week-old baby Azaria. A truck driver looking at the gathering of Seventh-Day Adventists passes a rude comment on them, hinting at the wide misunderstanding of the religious minority and also forebodes the harsh judgment that’s to be passed on the Chamberlain family.
Lindy and Michael take their two sons and their baby daughter on a camping trip to Ayers Rock. Michael cooks vegetarian sausages, Lindy bathes Azaria in a little tub, cold beers are passed around, tents are erected, and dingoes wait for the scraps thrown away by the campers. On the night of their stay, Lindy put Azaria to sleep in the tent. She briefly talks with another camper family before getting interrupted by the baby’s cry. The cry is cut-short abruptly and as Lindy returns to the tent, she sees a dingo emerging with something in its mouth, and runs off into the dark. There’s blood on the blanket. Panicked, Lindy runs to her husband screaming, “The dingo's got my baby!” 

Wielding torches, the lawmen and fellow campers thoroughly search the area, and unable to find the baby they arrive at the obvious conclusion that the baby is dead. The tragedy that befell Chamberlein family, however, didn’t end there. Australian media and public didn’t want to believe in the story of dingo taking a baby. Moreover, Michael’s weird way of rationalizing 'why God would take their little daughter' in the news interviews puts him under the scrutiny of arm-chair pundits. The rumor mill and media circus begin to work together, quibbling over every little mannerism and action of the Chamberlein family. Their religious affiliation makes it easy to paint them as a villain, and soon Azaria’s death is alleged to be a ritual sacrifice. When the baby’s bloodied dress was found, the incompetent police force of Ayers Rock begin to rely on circumstantial evidence and obscure forensic reports to doubt Lindy. The initial assessment in the court rules in favor of Lindy, particularly condemning the media for the way it held public court of opinion. 

Nevertheless, the lawmen allege that they found a bloody hand-print on the baby’s dress and that blood was found sprayed all over the underside of the dash board in the Chamberleins’ car. The case is reopened and Lindy becomes center of attention in a malicious campaign of slander. Director Schepisi often cuts the trials and tribulations faced by Michael and Linda to the dinner parties, saloons, and card games where the Australian public nonchalantly and repeatedly declares Lindy to be the guilty party. Lindy sees tee-shirts in front of courtroom decorated with words: “The Dingo is Innocent”. Some of the journalists seem to be worse than a baby-killing-dingo, who’d do anything for the sake of sniffing out a story. Even though Lindy is turned into an object of entertainment, she remains resolute, self-contained, and believes that at the end of the courtroom proceedings the truth will set her free. 

At one point in the narrative, even Lindy’s lawyers ask her to emote more for the jury, at least to play the role of a grieving mother. Lindy just wants to be the way she is, but the perceived iciness is further claimed as the proof of her guiltiness. Michael reacts in a different manner from Lindy. Being a sensitive man, Michael buckles under the pressure. He’s assumed as the ‘weak’ accomplice to the ‘evil’ woman. Those who have never heard of Lindy’s story would be shocked by the verdict passed by the jury. She was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving three-and-a-half years behind bars, a crucial piece of evidence proved that Lindy was innocent. An appeals court eventually overturned her conviction and Lindy was released. Lindy’s case is a classic example of miscarriage of justice, all happened because she was deemed guilty in the court of public opinion; an opinion persistently peddled by the ghouls and cutthroats in the media. 

A Cry in the Dark clearly has more relevance in our times as the means for public to pass judgment on any idiosyncratic behavior has become much easier. Although this is the story of Lindy Chamberlein, Fred Schepisi meticulously crafts the story in a manner that it becomes the deeply felt portrait of a very judgmental community (which is universal in nature). The narrative could have used more ambiguity, but by unfolding the events from Lindy’s perspective, Schepisi intricately examines how far a society goes when it deems an individual unlikable. Furthermore, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy which allows her to be cynical and frigid adds more complexity to the drama. In fact, Schepisi’s decision to not approach Lindy’s tale as a true-crime mystery works pretty well due to Streep’s perfectly composed performance. And gradually, Streep’s Lindy earns our sympathy, not exactly because we ‘like’ her’, but because we believe in her innocence and due to the rage we feel over the press’ witch hunt. It’s interesting to see how the media doesn’t miss a beat when it covers Lindy’s exoneration with the same relish it showed when it was keen to put her behind bars. The things these malevolent beings do for a good story! How they twist a simple truth when exhibiting it in the public realm! And how our own lust for entertainment perceives everything in a binary manner!

Overall, A Cry in the Dark (120 minutes) is an unpretentious and outstanding dramatization of a court-case in which an individual is condemned for not behaving in the ‘right’ way. 


The Story of Qiu Ju [1992] – A Fascinating Visual Discourse on a Simple Personal-Disputes Story

In many ways The Story of Qiu Ju (‘Qiu Ju da guan si’, 1992), the fourth directorial venture of Zhang Yimou, who is the most renowned among the ‘fifth generation’ of Chinese film-makers, marks a departure for its film-maker. Zhang’s first three period dramas – Red Sorghum (1988), Ju Dou (1990), and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) – possessed a sort of filmic beauty, an almost fairy-tale quality. Raise the Red Lantern, specifically, bowled us over with its sumptuous use of colors and elaborate sets. But ‘The Story of Qiu Ju’ is set in present-day rural China and Zhang replaces his rich formalism with coarse, grainy aesthetics of Italian neo-realism (using concealed cameras to shoot on streets and hiring non-professional actors, etc). The artist’s muse -- the extremely beautiful Gong Li -- also plays an unglamorous woman, cloaked in drab attire and walks around slowly due to her character’s well-developed pregnancy. In fact, Zhang wholly resists from directing his camera at Gong Li’s pretty face (apart from the final shot).

The Story of Qiu Ju was approved by the state censors, a fortune denied for Ju Dou & Raise the Red Lantern, whose final version was banned in China for a period. Perhaps the censors found Zhang’s mild, veiled criticism acceptable compared to his previous ventures (Zhang Yimou followed up ‘Qiu Ju’ with ‘To Live’ which was denied a theatrical release in mainland China). Based on Yuan Bin Chen’s novella ‘The Wan Family’s Lawsuit’, The Story of Qiu Ju was adapted to screen by Heng Liu (who collaborated with Zhang in ‘Ju Dou’ and ‘The Flowers of War’). The role the star-actress Gong Li played in this film and To Live (1994) were the most sympathetic and resilient figures she has donned among her eight movie collaborations with director Zhang Yimou (she was the lead actor in the film-maker’s first six works).

Gong Li’s titular character was first seen walking uncomfortably in a street that’s buzzing with people. She walks alongside another young woman who is pushing a cart within which a man lays down. The story is set in the remote north-west province of Shaanxi and it is winter. The trio reaches a doctor’s office and the doctor, chopping firewood to endure the punishing cold, looks as world-weary as the three. Qiu Ju says her husband Wan Qinglai (Peiqi Liu) was kicked in the groin by their village chief Wang (Kesheng Lei) over a petty argument. The doctor suggests rest for few days. Believing in traditional Chinese notions, Wan accepts his fate and waits for the pain to subside. But Qiu Ju wants an apology from the chief. The pregnant Qiu Ju laments, “If we can't fix your plumbing, we're stuck with the single-child policy for good.” In fact, the country’s child policy is indirectly the reason behind the tension between the two men. Wan has approached the chief, seeking approval to build a shed on their farm to store chili peppers. When the chief rejects this request, Wan is alleged to have made a subtle insult on chief’s lack of male children (he has four little daughters). Hence Wang got the kick in the place ‘where it counts’.

Qiu considers that the chief went too far by kicking her husband in the testicles. She first files a complaint with the local official Li (Zhijun Ge). The official proposes a compromise, modestly fining chief Wang. However, Qiu Ju doesn’t want financial compromise but only a simple apology. The chief’s pride won’t allow him to succumb before a woman. He insults her and it only fuels Qiu Ju’s resolve to take her case to the higher authorities. Each of these journeys is episodic, sometimes abruptly cutting from village to town or city and vice-versa. Qiu Ju is accompanied by her na├»ve sister-in-law Meizi (Liuchun Yang), both sort of lose themselves watching the hustle and bustle of city life for the first time. Qiu Ju does her best to navigate through modern China without getting ripped off (the country wardrobe although marks her as an easy target). Nevertheless, the bureaucracy keeps on suggesting the same solution.  And by the time the wheels of justice are set in motion, Qiu Ju doesn’t feel the same about her doggedness to reap justice.
Zhang Yimou shows tremendous restraint in setting up this simple conflict, never over-dramatizing the plight and emotions of the ordinary people. The authenticity and realism Zhang brings to the proceedings turns the film into a pleasing visual document of the Chinese way of life. The film-maker interleaves the narrative with small, unfeigned moments: the doctor chopping firewood; Qiu Ju and Meizi hauling chili peppers to a street market; the couples applying for marriage being jovially interviewed in the local government office; Qiu Ju’s hunt for the cheapest place to stay; the Public Security Bureau’s President treating the ‘country bumpkins’ to lunch; Meizi having her first American soda; Qiu Ju returning from the city with presents for her family. Such charming, understated notes that visualize the rhythm of village life keep us wholly engrossed despite the cyclical, repetitive nature of the narrative.

Zhang doesn’t make anyone out to be the bad apple. The chief finds himself in a strong position within the village and the legal hierarchy. His family set-up is interesting: an elderly woman, the chief’s wife and his four daughters (the family always welcomes Qiu Ju and her husband Wan with an innocent smile in spite of the conflict). He demonstrates his masculinity by the control he exerts over them. We may never perceive the chief’s defiance in the same note as Qiu Ju’s, mainly because the pregnant woman’s pursuit is mixed with purity and naivety, whereas the chief just wants to perpetuate the little power he possesses. But his haughtiness on being the village patriarch doesn’t stop him from displaying humane gestures. Zhang equates the chief’s humanist action during a dire situation with the traditional Confucian-based values of mutual obligations. The restrained old-school method of handling disputes in village life is preferred over the deeply ingrained indifference of the bureaucratic procedures (Of course, the traditional Chinese methods may contain problems in addressing more complex issues). Zhang’s intention isn’t to severely indict the rule of law (may be because of his then recent confrontations with the state censors), but to gently present the irony in state’s slow and very impersonal delivery of ‘justice’.

The Story of Qiu Ju might take its simple central conflict to absurd heights. We may wonder at the fastest response rate of bureaucracy, doubt Qiu Ju’s strength (owing to her mature stage of pregnancy), and financial position while she frequently makes these exhausting, costly trips to the city. Suspension of disbelief is necessary to take these narrative notes and Gong Li’s subdued acting style proves to be worthy distraction from such queries (What I particularly liked about the actress’ performance is the way she allows Qiu Ju’s anger to surface through her tenacious actions rather than dramatized emotions). Equally baffling was the greatly accommodating and kind nature of almost all the bureaucrats in the movie (that might be Zhang making sure the film gets past the censors). But still as a socio-cultural piece, The Story of QiuJu immensely engages us. Before Zhang Yimou went to make high-budget martial-arts epics, he informed movie-goers about the life of ordinary Chinese. And Qiu Ju was perhaps the most appealing and sympathetic of his ‘ordinary’ Chinese subjects. 


Orlando [1992] – A Whimsical Art-House Drama on Gender Politics

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novella, Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) is a challenging as well as a slightly frustrating art-house drama. At a glance, it looks like a Merchant Ivory production or like one of those (unimaginative) costume dramas. But this aesthetically-pleasing tale of androgynous British nobleman’s fantastical exploits playfully explores the themes of gender outlooks and personal identity. Having read Virginia Woolf (although I haven’t read Orlando), it is understandable what an arduous task it might have been to adapt the intricate text into a movie. Set across four centuries of British history, the ageless gender-switching protagonist’s emotional journey doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc. Yet Sally Potter’s prodigious visual achievement alongside Tilda Swinton’s intoxicating presence strengthens the free-wheeling plot structure.

Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter have started collaborating on this project five years before it went to production. It’s pretty evident how their long involvement have impeccably nurtured the ideas to come up with best possible devices. Virginia Woolf published the novella in 1928 and is alleged to have used Orlando merely as a conduit to playfully address her bewilderment over gender perceptions and restrictions over different eras and centuries. To align with Woolf’s idea, the script takes a slightly detached perspective, moving between one vignette to another (each situation’s theme is explicitly addressed in inter-titles: eg, death, love, sex, etc), and using it as a canvas for its thematic inquiries. 

The rascally central conceit of Orlando may lack the strong emotional resonance of other felicitated self-discovery journeys, although it makes up for this through the remarkably rich and memorable camerawork. Potter’s elegant camera movement and Swinton’s serenely composed bemusement carries the feeling of whimsy and dry humor oft found in Woolf’s works.

Tilda Swinton’s titular Orlando is a dashing nobleman, born into wealth and privilege. In 1600, the young man has a fateful meeting with elderly Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp). The Queen promises him great deal of wealth and land, provided if he doesn’t ‘grow old and wither’. Orlando decides to do just that: to progress through centuries without ageing. In 1610, Orlando lives in a huge estate and captivated by the arrival of an enchanting Muscovite Princess named Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey). The arrival of Russian diplomats is set in the marvelous background of frozen Thames (with waiters delivering drinks by skating on ice). In the pursuit of love, he lets down his betrothed fiancee, and later Orlando himself is rebuffed by Sasha. Arriving at a conclusion that women are beyond trust and comprehension, Orlando tries to be a poet and fails.

In the late 17th century, he is appointed as an Ambassador for Middle-East country and eventually fumbles in the diplomatic test. Soon Orlando transforms into a woman. Gazing upon his now transformed female body, he says with a note of amazement, Same person. No difference at all…. Just a different sex”. Orland’s spiritual calmness persists as she lives in the puritanical British society where intellectuals spout ridiculous claims on the nature of ‘fairer sex’. Orlando’s properties are threatened since as a woman she has no rights to inherit property. However, she rediscovers love and sex through an American drifter Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). The film ends in the timeline, well past the novella’s period. Orlando is seen cruising on a motorbike with her little daughter in 1990s Britain, excited by the new-age freedom and the ever-changing gender precepts.

Sally Potter’s script does find it difficult to maintain cohesiveness with the breakaway narrative. The laborious task of moving through time and space is not as easy in terms of visuals as compared to richly adorned prose. But as I mentioned earlier, Potter’s aesthetic maneuvers finely conveys Woolf’s treatise on shifting gender roles. The scene between Shelmerdine and Orlando, where the lovers discuss about their desires which stands against social expectations of gendered beings, is brilliantly shot savoring the dry wit and richness in the conversation. The occasional fourth-wall breaking moments may seem silly, but it arrays rightly with acutely self-conscious nature of Virginia Woolf and her central characters. Moreover, the devilish close-up shots of Tilda Swinton’s face as she faces the camera (or us) keep alive the feelings of gaiety in the narrative.

 It’s simply unimaginable how Orlando’s solitary stretch and existentialist muses would have played out on-screen without Tilda Swinton donning the role. It’s debatable whether Swinton was very convincing as a male, but there’s an equanimity and soulfulness in her composure that can’t be as fully realized by another actor. Despite the narrative framework maintaining a distance from its characters, Swinton brings up emotional transparency with greatest skill (her sad posture when she answers the question, ‘Why are you so sad?’ balancingly conveys inherent joy of newfound passion and the lament for its inevitable loss). Considering the narrative’s offbeat flourishes, the performances could have easily turned into caricatured portrayal rather than providing some emotional anchor. Both the excellent supporting cast and Swinton doesn’t do that mistake. The production and costume design immediately conjures the word ‘sumptuous’ from our mind (the film received two well-deserved Oscar nominations in these categories).

Orlando (93 minutes) is an unconventional century-spanning drama that must be watched for clear-eyed directorial gaze and Tilda Swinton’s distinctive screen presence. Despite few clumsy or disjointed narrative missteps, this is an audacious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s text on preconceived gender expectations.