Sally Potter's Orlando is not a film that you approach with a desire for realism, explication or reason. You have to accept it on its own terms, the way that you have to accept its source novel: Virginia Woolf's Orlando. While it is possible to spend hours unpacking this film and its various themes, metaphors, symbolism and imagery, whenever I return to it, it is with the sense that it highlights, perhaps better than any other film, the manner in which gender is a social and cultural construction.
Simone de Beauvoir has famously said that "one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman." The film's namesake, Orlando, is born a man and becomes a woman. His transformation from masculinity to femininity is also a historical journey from Elizabethan times to the twentieth century. Not only does Orlando have the magical power to switch genders, but also to live for over 400 years. Time and space are compressed and expressed through a process of ongoing identity construction, so that by the end of the film, we realise the manner in which our own identities are shaped by our history, our culture and our society.
On a personal level, I love the distinction which is drawn between the icy bleakness of lack of personal insight, to the warm and engulfing realisation of desire and the self. I also love the openness and expansive spirit of this film, especially when you consider that so many films these days are concerned with presenting easily understood plots, rather than engaging the imagination and creativity of their viewers.