Myths Sprout from the Soil of Everyday Life
This is no charitable film pleading tolerance for abnormal people. It operates with a number of tricks, but not the one most films count on - identification. It cites Tod Browning's famous 1932 film in which the cinema belies its ability to create illusions by an unimaginable display of real monsters. But this film is different.
It redistributes the balance between real and artificial monstrosity. Plausibility is no problem. Its half-, double-, or non-people are not people just like me and you, neither are they better people. The head freak, the freak of the title, is based upon Virginia Woolf's Orlando, who realizes the age-old dream of androgyny. Like the Orlando of the novel, she/he is not subject to time and mortality. That alone would be enough to make him/her a monster of experience.
Magdalena Montezuma, unrecognizable under a gloomy pilgrim's cowl in an apocalyptic dumpscape, sets the tone for the film with her first movements. We see right away that only a woman pretending to be a man walks that way.
The closest ancestor in film history is Buñuel. Freak Orlando belongs to the genre of road movies represented by The Milky Way and charcterized by the cross section through time. In contrast to films with a linear narrative, these films are ahistorical, no matter how often they may invoke history. Lacking faith in progress, they express the conviction that however much the forms may change, superstition remains superstition. Instead of developing, events cluster and accumulate into a monumental story.
Here, too, we encounter beggars and pilgrims, dwarves and stylites, bearded ladies and fetishists, and there are many wonders to astonish us. But where Buñuel demystifies myths by making them flesh, Ottinger's film is more a mythification of the modern. It is infected by its spatial proximity to old concepts and rituals.
Despite excessive pictoriality, Freak Orlando is more a documentary than a fictional film. It documents collective fantasies. It shows that myths were always parasitical hybrid images in which dominant ideas took on solid form, without considering where they came from or where they were headed. Even in those places where we would most like to congratulate the director for her incredible inventions, we find, as she documents in the book to the film, that all of these things actually existed. The shell on the pilgrims' hat is a copy, and people with spotted skins are known in literature as panther men. As for her chickens with doll's heads, we have seen the originals in Browning's Freaks.
Ugliness doesn't sell
The cinema realizes surrealism's dreams of collage. Without film, the surrealists could never have conceived of their revolutionary metamorphoses. It is crucial to Ulrike Ottinger's concept of cinema that film can endow every notion, every desire, fear, and dream with the aura of reality. To put it pictorially, with film we can prove that myth is a living torso.
In Freak Orlando the department store is the temple of promises, the meeting-place of the faithful, where public life regulates itself according to particular liturgies. Here norms are not only cemented, but relations to the past are exploited. Only the combination of the latest rage with old standbys produces the right special offer. The lovely Miss Helena Müller lends her siren's voice to department store publicity. Just as in the good old days, one must awaken expectations and create faith without seeming to do so.
The scenes in the film function in a comparable way. They arouse associations in which the presumably natural is perverted by the artificial. If one had to describe the scenery of the second episode, in the Middle Ages, one could say without hesitation that it takes place before a cathedral entrance, where the theater of the world performs, although we can see perfectly well that all that stands behind the figures hungry for miracles and catastrophes is a derelict water-tower.
These images, full of ambiguities as they are, give form to the aura of diffuse meanings in feelings for which no words exist. It is as if the usual exchange in cinema, in which the image represents reality, had come undone, transferring everything to the level of pictures; as if freefloating pictures existed that no longer imitate any model in nature.
The already-loosened identification between object and representation breaks down completely where individual actors take on several roles. Delphine Seyrig plays a tree of life, the beautiful Helena, the mother of the two-headed Orlanda, a Siamese twin in a sideshow and, finally, a trained Playboy Bunny who dances in a competition of ideal ugliness.
The film plays with old forms and the newest materials. In order to incarnate the idea of "bourgeois", Ulrike Ottinger combines statements about earning money with extravagant costumes of wax cloth recalling the Florence of the Medici. The film is one big masquerade, but one where it is precisely at the most seemingly artificial moments that we feel someone is actually parading his or her own skin. For example: a group of phallocrats dance over a mountain and Mother Earth has had to submit to a covering of artificial grass.
The films of Praunheim and Schroeter have taught us to see and have reminded us of the existence of their films alongside the usual cinematic forms. Their images have always contained the refusal to accept as reality that which the norms dictated. What the figure of Freak Orlando heroically reveals and conceals is that in art, sexuality creates its own forms to express its relationship to the law, to legality and order.
Frieda Grafe, Süddeutsche Zeitung, November 7/8, 1981
Die Dimension der emotionalen Aufladung der Bilder, die über das Verwundern hinausgeht, kommt dem Film vor allem über das Spiel Delphine Seyrigs zu, die neben Magdalena Montezuma als Orlanda / Orlando die wechselnden Episodenrollen durchläuft von der Lebensbaumgöttin, Mutter der doppelköpfigen Wundergeburt, siamesischer Zwillingshälfte, Kaufhausansagerin zum Bunny beim ,Wettbewerb der Häßlichen'. Während Magdalena Montezuma die Eiseskälte der Kunstfigur virtuos verbreitet, spielt Delphine Seyrig ihre Parts durchaus mit psychischem Profil, vermenschlicht mit fIatterndem Lächeln, zarten Blicken, sanftem Timbre das Künstliche zur weicheren Kontur der Person.
Gertrud Koch, Frankfurter Rundschau, November 14, 1981