Why this might not be so easy
Sally Potter burst into global cinematic consciousness when her first film, 1978’s Thriller, followed a premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival with a sold-out run at the Ritzy in London, then a US tour and hundreds of articles. It’s a journey that would be almost impossible now for a debut black-and-white short film by a performance artist – one mainly composed of stills filmed on 16mm half-inched from skips in Soho, and featuring the first black female lead in British feature film history (Colette Laffont).
From that springboard, Potter has become Britain’s most prolific woman writer-director, garlanded with dozens of international awards.
And she’s done so by following the roads not taken by others: while making films with A-list actors such as Cate Blanchett and David Oyelowo, she has remained entirely independent. Her narrative feature films retain the experimental sensibility that informed Thriller’s feminist shake-up of La Bohème, wrapping stories that are emotionally and politically intelligent in spare, luminous aesthetics designed to touch the viewer.
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In the title of her pioneering book on directing film actors, she describes her work as “naked cinema” – an unfashionable pursuit in an era of highly stylised ‘haute couture’ arthouse (she also made one of the first camera-phone films, 2008’s Rage, which exposed the shallow machinations of the fashion world as covering up deeper exploitations).
Her latest film, The Roads Not Taken, sees Potter meeting the moment with a cinema that centres care, with a respect for carers, care workers and cared-for people expressed with the care that the least-seen stories, bodies and histories need and deserve.
The best place to start – Orlando
Orlando (1992) is a film at once about caring for under-seen histories, and about always beginning again. Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, which had long been considered unfilmable (including during the 10 years it took Potter to get the film made), it follows the eponymous aristocratic protagonist who is blessed/cursed by Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) to live for 400 years, changes gender midway through, and always looks fabulous in Sandy Powell’s lush designs.
In her breakthrough role as Orlando, Tilda Swinton gave British cinema a daringly new vision of itself and of our history: as queer, feminist and internationalist, at once romantic and ironic. And in a twist on Woolf’s novel, Potter’s Orlando gives up her big house at the end, preferring a motorbike and sidecar to swoop into the present following a gold lamé angel (Jimmy Somerville).
Often imitated – most recently in the BBC’s Gentleman Jack (2019), which knowingly quotes Swinton’s famous to-camera shots – but never bettered, Orlando remains as fresh, compelling and transformative as it did back when queer period drama was not all the rage, but a bold and unprecedented move.
What to watch next
The Roads Not Taken stands at a crossroads (as it were) between four of Potter’s previous films, whose themes and styles intersect. Both The Man Who Cried (2000) and Ginger & Rosa (2012) examine father-daughter relationships across distances and complex histories – Elle Fanning’s Ginger is a watchful, wary, wannabe-writer precursor to her character in Potter’s latest. Her coming of age in 1962 takes in the Cuban missile crisis as well as her parents’ separation, her best friend Rosa’s (Alice Englert) desertion, and her desire to write poetry, equally inspired and infuriated by her intellectual father (Alessandro Nivola).
Ginger & Rosa shares its crisp, melancholy wintry palette with the opening of The Man Who Cried, which takes place half a century earlier in Russia. Feygele, the young girl in that opening scene, grows up as a Jewish refugee renamed Suzy (Christina Ricci), leaves London for Paris, and travels halfway around the world escaping the Nazis before finding her father.
Suzy has to flee across multiple borders to reach safety in America; in The Roads Not Taken, Molly is reporting on the US closing its southern border. That follows on from Potter’s work in Yes (2004), about She and He, a white Irish woman scientist (Joan Allen) and a Lebanese doctor (Simon Abkarian) working as a chef while seeking asylum in London, who fall in love and come up against how we internalise borders. Spoken in flowing blank verse, the film is an act of witness to how we care (or don’t) for each other, professionally and personally, and includes a devastating cameo by Sheila Hancock as She’s aunt, dying in a hospice.
Embodied knowledge is ever-present in Potter’s films, perhaps nowhere more so than in The Tango Lesson (1997), where the filmmaker stars as Sally, a filmmaker frustrated in making a glossy thriller about the fashion industry who gets entangled in the difficult and demanding wisdom of tango, in life and love, leading her to a very different film.
Intercutting the film-within-a-film and the film that makes itself in front of our eyes, The Tango Lesson looks forward to the intertwined storylines of The Roads Not Taken, and lovingly backward to Potter’s 1970s training as a dancer and choreographer.
Where not to start
While the lively alternative screening circuit of 1978 was raring for Thriller, by 1983 the world had changed dramatically. Reagan and Thatcher had swept to power, and countercultural movements were decimated. The Chariots of Fire (1981) moment definitely wasn’t ready for Potter’s debut feature, The Gold Diggers (1983), and in many ways the film is still ahead of our time.
Are we really ready for a film that transforms everything, including cinema, at a molecular level? After all, it’s about alchemy – defined as overturning capitalist colonialism (listen out for ‘The Empire Song’) and liberating women from its gaze; specifically, Julie Christie (as Ruby) being freed from a gilded cage, by handsome butch Celeste (Laffont) riding up on a white horse. Swooning queer romance and a bestselling soundtrack of Marxist musical numbers, composed by avant-garde genius Lindsay Cooper? It’s no wonder the film was unavailable on DVD until the BFI restored and released it, along with Thriller, in 2009: it’s still sensationally, gloriously dangerous.
It’s also evidence that Potter – who not only wrote and directed the film, but performed the theme song (she co-composed The Roads Not Taken’s score as well) – is British film’s secret triple threat. From experimental dance film to heartbreaking classical narratives, there are no borders she hasn’t crossed, and no cinematic roads that she hasn’t marked out for us as viewers, and for new filmmakers, to follow.
- The Roads Not Taken, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 11 September