Gender Trouble

Amy Taubin on Sally Potter

Left: Sally Potter, The Man Who Cried, 2000, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Suzie and Cesar (Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp). Right: Sally Potter, Orlando, 1992, still from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. Orlando (Tilda Swinton).

MOMA’S MINIRETROSPECTIVE of films by Sally Potter kicked off with a “preview” of the digital restoration of Orlando (1992), Potter’s witty, dazzling, and occasionally delirious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender bender starring Tilda Swinton as the eponymous, androgynous hero/ine. Orlando was Swinton’s breakout film, and her stardom plays a large role in the film’s theatrical re-release (on July 23) by Sony Pictures Classics, the other reason (or rather hope) being that its beauty and ambition might jog the art-house audience, particularly its female sector, out of complacency. I haven’t seen Orlando in nearly twenty years but I’ve never forgotten the moment when our hero, awaking to discover that the body that was born male is now female, turns limpid eyes to the camera and says with surpassing cool: “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” Or when she makes a madcap dash from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, shedding her Victorian togs as she runs. Or the sound of Jimmy Somerville’s angelic falsetto voice, singing the aria that ends the film on a note of total affirmation that is pure Potter. (It’s doubtful that Woolf would have approved.)

Orlando is an enormous achievement, and if nothing else in Potter’s nearly forty-year career matches it, there are nevertheless many films in the MoMA series that reveal her brilliant eye for framing and camera placement, her ear for music, and the extremely moving ongoing conflict between her romantic sensibility and her analytic mind. This conflict makes some of her most daring movies awkward and sometimes outright embarrassing, inspiring some of my favorite film critics to reviews as amusing as they are openly befuddled. Thus J. Hoberman of the Village Voice wrote that The Man Who Cried (2000) “gives bad movies a good name.” He continued: “Potter’s stringent, resourceful filmmaking in handling an extravagantly absurd plot and hopeless acting recalls the genius of poverty row maestro Edgar G. Ulmer.” He also noted that said plot was of Potter’s own devising. Nevertheless, he included the film on one of his best-of-the-year lists. (Among the hopeless actors are Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, and Christina Ricci.) The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris opened his review of Yes (2005), Potter’s attempt at reconciliation with the Other in the post-9/11 era, by observing: “Yes is a movie I watched with delighted derision, if such a response is possible. I enjoyed my dislike of it.” And he concluded: “The result is a unique time at the art house: a work whose badness becomes guiltily pleasurable, like a Harlequin romance novel masquerading as a dissertation.”

If these seem like dubious recommendations (and my assessment of these two films is even less likely to inspire anyone but a Potter completist to catch them), I suggest that you not pass up the rare opportunity to see The Gold Diggers (1983) and The Tango Lesson (1997) projected on the big screen. The former is Potter’s first feature, a fragmented meditation on women, money, and power, in addition to Busby Berkeley musicals Arctic landscapes, and Julie Christie’s leonine face. It is ravishingly photographed in black and white by Babette Mangolte. The latter film, another black-and-white beauty—this one shot by Robby Müller—is an audacious, pull-out-the-stops wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the tango is used to explore cultural difference that’s bred to the bone, the lure of certain aesthetic forms despite—or perhaps because of—their traditional assignment of gender roles, and the problem of women asserting authority and power, especially in situations where great male artists are involved. The artist here is the tango master Pablo Veron. The Tango Lesson is precisely structured and heedlessly personal, and the particulars of Potter’s self-exposure, like the wildest moments in Orlando, have stayed in my mind for years.

A retrospective of the films of Sally Potter runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York July 7–21, 2010. For more details, click here. Orlando will have a theatrical re-release by Sony Pictures Classics beginning July 23.