Going beyond mere ideas of pansexuality, gender reassignment and transgenderdom, the documentary “The Ballad of Genesis & Lady Jaye” centers on the relatively unique notion of pandrogeny — the concept of a man and woman shedding their individuality and appearance and becoming one and the same, in part through plastic surgery. Raising all kinds of fascinating questions about the notions of identity, the Marie Losier-directed documentary is often bizarre, trangressive and ideologically challenging, but always engrossing.
Centering on the relationship between seminal experimental artist Genesis P-Orridge (industrial music forefather and founder of such atonal and dadaist musical groups as Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) and his/her late wife Jaye Breyer, while the film does act as part music documentary and part examination of self, identity and individuality (or lack thereof) this ballad, as its title suggests, is ultimately a deeply felt, albeit odd, love story. In documenting the titular pair’s romance and relationship, Losier wisely tracks the Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV story as it applies to their convention-busting aspirations, rejections of musical and societal norms and how it paved the way for the idea of pandrogeny — essentially just another art project, but one with much deeper emotional roots.
Losier chronicles P-Orridge’s story for context — being an outcast, turning into a confrontational avante garde artist with Coum Transmissions, becoming an industrial music trailblazer, befriending William Burroughs and cut-ups pioneer Brion Gysin — but the true story blooms as P-Orridge meets his soul mate, performance artist Jaye Breyer, in the “dungeon basement” of a dominatrix friend’s New York apartment in the ’90s. He’s smitten and it’s essentially love at first site. As unconventional artists who challenge, defy and aim for cultural re-engineering in their work, P-Orridge and Bryer’s relationship takes like a duck to water, and the couple soon resolve to take their love and art to the next level, inspired by the idea of the moment of simultaneous orgasm transforming two beings into one.
Beginning as a purely romantic notion, Breyer and P-Orridge begin to explore the concept of pandrogeny to its fullest, to the point where it takes on deeper philosophical import — it’s a new form of evolution, “pandrogeny is a cry for survival,” is one of their manifestos. “We refuse to be the same as everyone else!” P-Orridge shouts in a deleted scene from queer-core director Bruce LaBruce‘s controversial film “Raspberry Reich,” while wearing a leather mini-skirt and sporting an Adolf Hitler-style moustache. So slowly, the two begin undergoing cosmetic surgery to look like one another, which arguably culminates when P-Orridge (and Jaye) have dual implant breast surgery on Valentine’s Day of 2003.
What’s fascinating about this experimental body modification is that it dovetails perfectly with both subjects’ need to create, and P-Orridge’s tireless desire to change and evolve (see his art, musical career and appearance over the years). It’s a strange concept for many of us, but it is perhaps the definitive display of affection and a fearless exploration of the unknown. And while there’s a political side to it all – the pandrogeny manifesto does tend to be an angry rallying cry – both Genesis and Jaye talk about being “trapped” inside their bodies and being forced to live lives in a binary and outdated “either/or universe.” But the angst involved belies both P-Orridge’s inherent playful and humorous nature and the bottomless adoration that exists between him and Breyer.
With Breyer having passed away in 2007 of stomach cancer, “The Ballad Of Genesis & Lady Jaye” is not only a portrait of the subjects’ pandrogyne project, but a heartfelt tribute and loveletter to the departed Jaye. While there’s no doubt some audiences may find the documentary to be a queasy and unsettling examination, by illustrating a largely neutral portrait of the duo, unencumbered by the filmmaker’s personal sexual, political or ideological agenda, Losier creates an engrossing depiction of two individuals, who happen to be non-conformists unafraid to go beyond love.
If the film veers off its compelling mark, it’s in the moments when Losier seemingly needs a breather and the documentary slips into a relatively ordinary Psychic TV tour chronicle or a document of the new album they’re recording — with such a rich, mostly unexamined (at least by the mainstream) 40-year musical history, it’s tempting to hew closely to that story. Luckily though, the film never loses its center as an absorbing record of a wholly unique relationship where love and art converged to create a bizarre, but unforgettable union. And told in jump-cut-laden fits and starts, the form serves the material well, without swerving off into the annyoing or confusing.
What’s perhaps most intriguing here is the idea of the dissolution of not only gender, but individual identity within a romance. While LGBT concerns are often marked by their definition, the Jaye-P-Orridge conceit is essentially to erase definition and evolve into a higher being of one. Impractical by modern standards, one wonders if future generations might see this documentary and look upon this pair as two of the most advanced and evolved people on the planet. [A-]