It's rare for a documentary style to match its subject so ideally.
The film opens with a fuzzy, black-and-white glimpse of Genesis P-Orridge, a leading figure in industrial music and art rock of the late 1970s and 1980s. He's dressed in a long white skirt hiked up to his shoulders and a white furry hat, puckering his lips in a whistle like a deranged, Dadaist Tweetie bird.
A few minutes later he is strolling through Central Park, arm-in-arm with his wife Lady Jaye, both in white (a favourite colour of P-Orridge, with his bleached blond hair). The wife is wearing the pants in the family – he is sporting a short skirt.
The scenes, like most all of the film, are a cross between home movie and underground video art, and that beautifully matches the couple, who turned their love for each other and seemingly every aspect of their home life into an art project.
P-Orridge is already a well-established subject for documentary filmmakers. Numerous films about the art underground, from the legacy of William S. Burroughs to the era's New York scene, have included P-Orridge as one of the few figures connected to an era when there was still culture to counter and there was still art that the establishment felt was dangerous and confusing.
As a founder of the British musical and artistic troupe COUM Transmissions, P-Orridge outraged the English press with performance pieces full of urination and general displays of other bodily functions – proto punk before the Sex Pistols packaged the image. He then went on to front industrial art-rockers Throbbing Gristle, followed by the equally influential Psychic TV.
Yet despite his habit of meticulously archiving his past and his near fanaticism for the 1960s, P-Orridge changed with the times as he got older. Through the viewfinder of French-born filmmaker Marie Losier, P-Orridge isn't dangerous. He seems more like a wacky, artistic, older woman. He is filmed immaturely walking in circles atop a bed. He cooks dinner while continually showing off his lacy black bra. He pretends to swim in what looks like a skintight Pucci dress and bathing cap.
In many ways, he is a woman.
P-Orridge and Lady Jaye purposely blurred the distinction between husband and wife during their marriage. They set out to become the same person for the sake of art, by undergoing plastic surgery and wearing similar women's clothes. P-Orridge had gotten breast implants and began conducting himself as a woman, even around the house. ("She has no idea what she is," he says about himself)
Lady Jaye, a natural beauty and close to half P-Orridge's age, had left home in her teens to live in New York's then-very-dangerous Alphabet City, and put herself through nursing school by working as a dominatrix and stage performer.
After becoming a couple, P-Orridge and Lady Jaye hoped to produce a third entity from their love, by turning themselves as a couple into a "pandrogynous" new creation. And this is where Losier's story shows its traditional underpinning.
What intense love between two people hasn't felt like a new creation, a new entity? What lover hasn't adopted the other's traits, while also wanting to consume the other, just as (in the kids' book) the Wild Things called to Max, "We'll eat you up, we love you so"? The difference here is that P-Orridge and Lady Jaye expressed that impulse on the surface of their bodies.
There is often a domestic, even infantile quality in how they show this. P-Orridge in older age is particularly intent on displaying a doting, slightly dotty female identity, and Losier often makes this hamming for the camera the focus of the film. To some this may seem annoying or even disturbing.
But when isn't the cooing between any two lovers both a little bit annoying and a little bit forgivable? It's an adoring impulse that people recognize in themselves, even if we choose not to show it in quite the same way as P-Orridge and Lady Jaye.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye
- Directed by Marie Losier
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars