Some Anxious Existential Thoughts on Time.

And, Also Some Thoughts On Sally Potter’s Orlando

by Margeaux Labat

Four hundred years. And counting. That’s how long the eponymous protagonist of Sally Potter’s Orlando has to experience all that life has to offer. The dreamlike period piece is broken down into the seven pillars of their life (perhaps more, for all we know): death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex, and birth… pretty much what life is all about, right? If you ask me, that’s a solid checklist for what life revolves around, both within and outside of our control.

We follow the life of the wide-eyed, gender-fluid Orlando, who, in a Godlike performance from Tilda Swinton, experiences aristocratic life both as a man and a woman. They’re blessed (or cursed) with the gift of eternal youth after Queen Elizabeth I wills them her estate—under one condition. “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” And grow old Orlando does not.

“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”

Traveling and living through countless eras, Orlando spends the “politics” chapter of their life serving as a British ambassador in Constantinople. After failing to conform to expectations of masculinity on the battlefield, Orlando undergoes what I humbly view as The Ultimate Metamorphosis—his transformation into the feminine. Besides directly commenting on all the societal bullshit that comes attached to our performances of gender, Orlando has something to say about the nature of time. A point which, to put it colloquially, quite shook me.

Connecting the past to the present, the timeline of Orlando’s life skips ahead in rough chunks of fifty years or so. But Orlando’s disposition remains a timeless constant, regardless of sex; intelligent, charming, yet somewhat detached, as if time is flowing through them and they’re just letting their never-ending fate play out. Through Tilda’s bottomless yet deeply alluring black eyes—which frequently stare straight at us in telling glances while offering sly bits of witty commentary—I saw pieces of myself, living life not completely and actively in the present, but more as a passive agent. A slave to the ticking bomb of time.

Whether in the form of a daily anxiety or when tragedy strikes close to home, each and every person is plagued with coming to terms with our collective imminent fate: We’re all gonna die one day. But in Orlando’s case, they have all the time in the world to experience all the highs and lows of what life has to offer. While watching it unfold, a thought would consistently ping in my head, first as a mere passing comment before the weight of it truly dawned on me: Will I have enough time to live all of the lives I wish to live, in this mere single life that I’ve been given? Maybe seventy-seven years total, if I am even that lucky?

Movie still from Orlando. A woman dressed in a lavish 1600s ballgown and wig walks through a hedge garden.

The average human lifespan is said to be seventy-seven years. Well, at least according to Google. Given the fact that I’m a Black woman, it’s probably even shorter. And that’s not even taking into account the possibility of getting killed. Will I even be granted the fateful opportunity to make it to seventy-seven? I could die, or even worse, get killed (in a car accident, in a mass shooting, by a drunk or sleep-deprived driver while riding my bike, etc.) truly at any given moment.

Then I began to think… of all the books I hope to read, all the albums I must listen to, all the films I wish to see, all the places I yearn to travel to, all the languages I want to learn, all the lovers and types of love I hope to experience. When will the switch flip for current, lowercase me—an oblivious vessel that time simply passes through—to uppercase, optimal Me—living the enriched, full life I envision for myself? Who (or what) will do the flip-switching, if not me?

Twenty-three years. Seventy-seven minus twenty-three. That’s fifty-four. Fifty-four years left, give or take. 

This life that I have, I will always be seeing it through these eyes, experiencing it corporeally through my one and only body. Waking, walking, waiting, talking, washing, eating, sleeping, repeating. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It can all start now. Flipping the switch from passive to active.

And then, snapping me out of my existential ruminatory haze and back into my viewing experience, a line is spoken in the last scene of the film: “No longer trapped by destiny, and ever since she let go of the past, she found her life was beginning.” To eloquently echo Orlando’s catchphrase, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Ah.

Nostalgia is something that admittedly swallows me whole. I willingly wallow in it, as it is brought on by seemingly everything: a sudden waft of a certain smell, a song, a handwritten note, a specific feeling in the air when I step outside. The romanticization of nostalgia itself often obscures my vision of the future. Wait, no, more importantly, my vision of the now. In the final scene—which looks and sounds like something straight out of a Björk music video—Orlando looks directly at us one last time, using her eyes to signal that her life was finally starting. I can feel her sense of release, and it tells me to do it too: let go of the past, free yourself from the mentally exhausting clenches of the endless possibilities of your destiny, and relish in the now. Because it’s just that easy, right?

Orlando taught me many things. For one, it showed me how, in several ways, it might just be The Blueprint™ (for many Wes Anderson moments, for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, for Fleabag, for The Favourite; I could go on.) From the ornate and detail-oriented costumes and production design to the symmetrical, carefully framed shots, to the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, to the twee humor that adds a lightness to even the most serious moments; Orlando has a balance of light and dark, of simplicity and frivolity, that undoubtedly influenced several more-well known indie period pieces and the auteurs behind them. By not taking itself too seriously, even in its heaviest moments, Orlando inspired me to stop succumbing as much to the crippling anxiety of life. With light, there is often darkness, but from darkness often comes light. With the final line of the film, I unexpectedly received a resonant wake-up call.

We could be given all the time in the world, and still complain that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Orlando had four hundred years, and when we left them, they were still figuring it out.  Life is only just beginning for them, so it’s sure as hell not too late for me.

Margeaux Labat is a music blogger, film writer, playlist curator, and radio show host currently based in New Orleans, LA.