Berlinale 2023: Minor Choruses, Major Films
This article appeared in the February 23, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our Berlinale 2023 coverage here.
Orlando, My Political Biography (Paul B. Preciado, 2023)
The relationship of cinema to first-person expression is an uneasy one. In literature, sole authorship is the rule; in film, the inverse holds true. Despite the auteurist celebration of individuality—and the rich tradition of single-person filmmaking that does exist in the avant-garde—it typically takes a village to make a movie. Nevertheless, contemporary nonfiction is marked by a strong tendency to tell one’s “own” story. In the ruins of objectivity, the personal reigns. It can even take on the force of an ethical imperative—one must make one’s positionality clear. A question then emerges: how to best represent the “I” in a medium so bound to a collective mode of production? Certainly not in any straightforward way. The making of a nonfiction film is a complex field of relations, encompassing all those who work on the film and appear within it. Any honest articulation of the authorial self that arises out of this nexus will be impure, unstable, thoroughly embedded within a social context. Say goodbye to the illusion of an autonomous and unique individual subject—a fiction so dear to fiction film. In its place can arrive something more compelling, truer to life: a dispatch from the uncertain interval between the “I” and the “we.”
All of this was swirling through my head after watching two standout films that premiered at this year’s Berlinale, both made in France and committed to at once embracing and exploding the practice of autobiography: Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography and Claire Simon’s Our Body. Preciado makes his directorial debut in the competitive Encounters section with a gender- and genre-bending riff on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography. The film is an extension of Preciado’s activities as a philosopher and public intellectual, notably as the writer of Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, an acclaimed 2008 work of autotheory. Simon, meanwhile, is a veteran filmmaker whose concerns have long bridged fiction and documentary. Our Body was a highlight of the Berlinale’s noncompetitive Forum section, immersing viewers for 168 minutes in the workings of a gynecological clinic that forms part of the Tenon Hospital in Paris. Simon assembles a composite portrait out of the experiences of dozens of patients—including herself. After receiving a cancer diagnosis midway through production, she unexpectedly crossed the threshold separating the observer from the observed, transforming her film in the process. Both Our Body and Orlando gather together diverse experiences of gender, and confront how the body is managed by the medical institution. Both draw on the lives of their makers while simultaneously refracting personal experience through the prism of collectivity. Each is utopian in its own way. This might be where their similarities end.
Our Body begins with voiceover narration from Simon explaining how she became acquainted with the “mostly female world” of the hospital after her producer became a patient there. Passing through a cemetery on her way to the clinic, she worries that it might be a place where one could “catch cancer.” The first patient seen is a teenager who wishes to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. Wearing a pink hoodie and a face mask, which locates the film at the peak of the COVID-19 era, she faces away from the camera as she discusses her situation with the doctor. From there, Simon shows trans adolescents seeking puberty blockers, patients suffering from endometriosis, couples undergoing IVF treatment, women giving birth, and so on, moving from youth to old age. Somewhat curiously, there is little discussion of menopause, something all women experience but which remains largely invisible in cinema, the important exception of Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990) aside.
The emphasis throughout is on the unobtrusive depiction of doctor-patient encounters, most of them face-to-face discussions. Although several gut-wrenching operations are shown, this is not a harrowing, anti-humanist barrage of surgical imagery like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s De humani corporis fabrica (2022). Nor is it an institutional documentary of the kind Frederick Wiseman would make. Even though there are occasional scenes depicting interactions between staff members, we never see the hospital’s cleaners or cafeteria, or learn anything of its administration. It is, rather, a film about the fragile link between personhood and embodiment, and the ways in which encounters with health care can alternately fortify or damage this bond.
Simon does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the medical system, let alone a critique. Aside from one scene of a demonstration outside the hospital calling for an end to obstetric and gynecological violence, there is no suggestion here of the institution as a patriarchal regime of control or even as possessing any kind of gender or racial bias. Simon declines to mention, for instance, that the protest she filmed occurred in response to charges of assault brought by dozens of women against the head of the hospital department depicted in Our Body. For her, it is a place of care. Her interest is human, her approach is optimistic, and her doctors are kindly. The film’s tenderness is emblematized by a moment near the end, when a doctor tells a frail patient that her cancer treatment has reached an impasse and she will soon be going into palliative care. Simon zooms in on the doctor’s hand holding the woman’s, stroking it as she delivers the news.
After the screening, a friend put it well: Simon doesn’t film anyone in a way in which she herself would not want to be filmed. The film radiates concern for the dignity of the patients. That said, Simon’s self-representation does differ in one important respect from how she pictures others. After receiving her cancer diagnosis at roughly the halfway point, she returns at the film’s conclusion as an image of vitality, bicycling away from the hospital with her hair growing back. She is the only patient who features in the film more than once, the only one who is shown to have a narrative trajectory. The others appear as links in a larger chain, forming part of the passage from adolescence to death that gives the film its shape. This allows Simon to withdraw from an individualistic approach and create an assembly of difference, an exquisite corpse made of the living. Yet it is notable that her title is Our Body—not “our bodies,” in the plural. Her work proposes a common corporeal ground. By mimicking the trajectory of a single life cycle, the film risks swallowing up these diverse experiences into an abstraction called “Woman.” At the same time, the experiences depicted are so irreconcilable that the very possibility of such universalization is undermined. This feeling of instability is echoed by Simon’s own status relative to the other patients: she forms part of this “we” while also standing outside it, taking responsibility as the film’s originator and organizing conscience.
What does it mean to ground an account of women’s existence in the entanglement of our bodies with the medical establishment, particularly when that account does not take the institution to task for its sexism and racism, or reflect on the working conditions of those within it? One complaint many feminists have long voiced is that we are too often reduced to corporeality, understood within a binary system as closer to the body than the mind, nature rather than culture. Simon arguably reproduces this logic. On the other hand, her film makes public a wide range of experiences that are shared by many women yet typically undergone privately and sometimes marked by suffering and shame. In this, it is an inheritor of a long tradition of feminist-realist documentary that seeks to overcome atomization and reinforce bonds of solidarity among women.
Orlando, My Political Biography, like Our Body, is a choral work guided by an author who appears on screen and in voiceover. To say it takes up a different stance vis-à-vis the medical establishment would be putting it mildly. For Preciado, rather than a site of care, the clinic is an apparatus of scrutiny that polices gender expression to the detriment of trans lives. Despite claiming this as “his” biography, the theorist-turned-director figures in the film as only one element of a much larger constellation that crosses fiction and documentary, past and present, and even ventures into a utopian vision of the future with an incredible concluding cameo by writer-director Virginie Despentes as a judge who, in the year 2028, abolishes the legal assignment of sex at birth. Not a biography, then, but a political biography—the story of a life enmeshed within a field of power relations.
Orlando is both a tribute to and a contestation of Woolf’s famous novel, in which a male aristocrat born during the reign of Elizabeth I lives through subsequent centuries, one night effortlessly changing gender while sleeping. Preciado addresses Woolf directly in the voiceover, as “you,” taking issue with the class character of her book, the ease of the transition she describes, and her lack of engagement with trans people of her era. At the same time, Woolf stands as an inspiration, providing a reservoir of ideas and images that the filmmaker draws upon with verve. Preciado retells her narrative, casting multiple people as its protagonist, with each one introducing themselves by name before adding, “In this film, I’ll be Orlando by Virginia Woolf.”
Sally Potter’s version this isn’t. Its tone varies wildly, as do its formal strategies. One thing it consistently avoids is focusing too much on the matters of surgery and genitalia, topics which feature disproportionately in mainstream media coverage of transgender people—coverage that, as the recent open letters to The New York Times from GLAAD and the Freelance Solidarity Project emphasize, is often sensationalistic and transphobic. Preciado offers an oppositional array of images, including a glorious musical number called “Pharmacoliberation,” staged in a doctor’s waiting room, where people exchange tips about how to perform for doctors to get what they need; archival footage of historical trans figures like Christine Jorgensen, Sylvia Rivera, and Coccinelle; first-person accounts by the film’s various performers of violence, joy, discrimination, and community that seamlessly move into elements of Woolf’s narrative; staged sequences that emphasize their own artifice; and some references to Preciado’s own life, but perhaps fewer than might be expected. When it does come time to depict the act of surgery, the body on the operating table is a copy of Woolf’s book.
The Berlinale lists Orlando, My Political Biography as a documentary, but genre, like gender, is a regulatory system that Preciado has no time for. He wants out of the binary trap. This expansive film unfolds the complexity and diversity of trans experiences without ever universalizing—and while having fun. Watching it, I was reminded of a line from Billy-Ray Belcourt’s recent novel A Minor Chorus, a work of queer experimentation that, like Preciado’s film, consistently reflects on the difficulties and pleasures of representing oneself and one’s community in contestation of dominant norms: “Let’s say I’m fictitious in the way reality is fictitious. Let’s say I have to be unendingly invented and reinvented.” Preciado advances an idea of the self, any self, as process and metamorphosis; stable identity is part of what must be dismantled.
Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College London and the co-editor of Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (MIT Press, 2022).