Monsoon-A-Day: ‘Freak Orlando’ (1981)

Welcome to Monsoon-a-day

Where I watch and review a movie a day. Or whenever I fucking feel like it.

Day 119


First published in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando: A Biography” details the life of a poet who, due to his near immortality, has many adventures and meets a number of historical figures. He also magically changes sex from man to woman, without any explanation given. It’s not a big deal. The novel is essentially a more interesting, more cerebral version of Forrest Gump.

Although there’s been a couple of stage productions based on the book, with Isabelle Huppert and Miranda Richardson’s versions being the most notable examples, it’s the 1992 theatrical film starring Tilda Swinton that’s the best, most well known adaptation. There may not be a more perfect casting in any medium than that of Swinton as the centuries old, omnisexual hero-heroine Orlando. She glides through the exquisitely beautiful film with bemusement and unflappability. She’s not without her weaknesses or hardships but the world is not heavy enough to weigh her down. It’s a star making performance in a criminally underseen film.

The 1981 version however, is none of those things.

Freak Orlando feels like someone was relating the plot of Orlando to director Ulrike Ottinger and when they got to the “…for no apparent reason” rationale behind the titular characters transformation, the director, who was only half listening, stopped them and immediately signed on to make it.

That’s a lot of shoe leather to basically say–this film makes no goddamn sense. There are three kinds of pretentious filmmaking: the arty films, films about art and filmed art. Arty films are the shit the Criterion Collection releases that none of you scrubs watch, films about art are self explanatory but filmed art is a bit more rare. Directors like Matthew Barney create cinematic art installations that have no narrative structure or “actors.” They are comprised of different vignettes, all involving repetitive actions that are some how profound. If you derive pleasure from six hours of a woman cutting potatoes in half with specially designed high heels or watching a guy in a bright pink kilt climb a museum wall, be my guest but for me, that shit is torture.

Filmed art is not my bag.

Freak Orlando is, unfortunately, filmed art. Unlike Barney’s Cremaster series, there is a plot holding all the insanity together. A very, very loose plot that makes no sense but it’s there. In Ottinger’s interpretation of the Woolf character, Orlando is now a goddess who, along with most of the cast of Herzog‘s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), is tasked with making shoes at some bizarre, Orwellian mall. Problem is, the shoes don’t fit anyone’s feet, so everyone chases her down and in order to avoid capture, she changes her sex. I’m guessing. I might be connecting dots that aren’t there. And that’s it. That’s the entirety of the story. From there on in, its a series of oddball imagery without any rhyme or reason.

There’s a pig adorned with religious iconography, chickens with baby doll heads, a cavalcade of circus freaks, many of whom are amputees and more leather than a 1980’s gay bar. Shit just sort of happens until the film ends. There’s no profound message or deeper meaning. It’s just an odd assortment of outlandish images that yells at you to pay attention and when you do, it has nothing to say.

If “Free Money” book author Matthew Lesko some how magically turned into a movie, that movie would be Freak Orlando.