The Depiction of Reincarnation in Western Movie, Part 2 – “Orlando”



This is my independent study project which focuses on how moving image have been used as literature. For this topic, I carefully selected three films in different time of era, made in three different western countries. Every one of them is either based on a book or a script written by a famous writer. And most importantly, has a story somehow related to reincarnation. I will examine and analyze how these films depict reincarnation – an idea originally from eastern cultures, and how it been adopted by Western filmmakers.

Link to other two films:

Last year in Marienbad (1961)

Cloud Atlas (2012)

– Reincarnation

A philosophical or religious concept that an aspect of a living being starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death. It is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.

As the second movie I choose for this analysis, Orlando is a 1992 British film loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, written and directed by Sally Potter. (from Wikipedia page.)

Contrasted with Last year in Marienbad, Orlando made it crystal clear about the time change. Actually, it divided into seven chapters and marked with the year of each one. One thing quite obvious is these chapters forms into a cycle – starts with death and end with birth. It can be simply read as a cycle of life, marks Orlando’s life has come to a new beginning with her daughter; also, can be seen as a cycle of karma, for what he/she owns at the time becomes the foundation of next beginning. For example, at the end of the plot, Orlando sits under the same old oak tree he used to fall asleep at the beginning of the film, with the voiceover corresponds to the start of the film as well: There can be no doubt about her (vs. his) sex … She is tall and slim, with a slightly androgynous appearance that many females at the time aspire to, (vs. the feminine appearance that every young man at the time aspires to.) Such an arrangement and narration emphasized the idea that Orlando’s life not comes to an end but only arrived at a new beginning, or re-born from the past, like the nirvana of a phoenix.

Another interesting point is the depiction of reincarnation itself. In Last year in Marienbad, it seems like everyone has been trapped in time and space, constantly repeating themselves every year (or every life). On the contrary, in Orlando, the character’s life keeps changing and never stop growing. To be precise, every time there is a dramatic change happened in Orlando’s life, he/she will be elevated to another level of personal development, accompanies with some visual changes. Such changes could be hairstyle, voice, costume, or even gender. These changes could be read as his/her life reincarnations within a larger time-scale. For example, Orlando’s long sleep is a metaphor for rebirth. For there is no doubt, sleep or coma is a state that so very close to death. Therefore, in such a 400 years story of Orlando, birth and rebirth is a way for the character to evolve and elevate him/herself and stays in an immortal life.

Overall, in the film Orlando, although reincarnation hasn’t been depicted explicitly, it actually throughout the entire plot in a metaphor way. The subtlety within such a metaphor is so delicate and elegant. It almost like Virginia Wolf’s novel has reincarnated into another type of media – as a popular film of the late 20th century.

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