For auds who’ve barely heard of its eponymous subjects, “The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye” will play as a touching portrait of two kooky, kinky lovebirds who sought to become one “pandrogynous being” through plastic surgery. It will play less well with viewers who know performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s backstory, even those who admire his work, as it bathes its subjects in such a worshipful, cozy glow, they come across like Heloise and Abelard with piercings. Nevertheless, Marie Losier’s filmic epithalamium will undoubtedly be sung at further fests, especially LBGT-themed events. Pic won Berlin’s Teddy Award for documentary.
A producer-lenser-helmer-editor who has made numerous shorts about artists and filmmakers, Losier makes her feature debut here. Pic was mostly shot on a silent Bolex 16mm rig, imbuing the proceedings with a dreamy homemovie look that goes well with the subject matter. Somehow, people in extreme fetish gear just look prettier and cuddlier on grainy stock.
On a separately recorded voice track, occasionally in sync with the action onscreen, musician-turned-pro-provocateur P-Orridge (born Neil Andrew Megson in 1950) tells his life story — with digressions to cover that of his late partner, Lady Jaye (nee Jacqueline Breyer), who died in 2007 — while a combination of archival footage and original material unspools. In swift order, P-Orridge recounts how he spent an unhappy childhood in provincial Blighty; befriended William Burroughs and Brion Gysin; caused a stir by curating an infamously confrontational art exhibition; and founded proto-punk outfit Throbbing Gristle and its successor, industrial-music pioneer Psychic TV.
Pic glosses over the events (accusations of child abuse, never proved) that led to P-Orridge’s self-exile in the United States with his then-wife, Paula, and two children, Caresse and Genesse, to get to its core subject: the relationship between P-Orridge and Lady Jaye. A former nurse turned dominatrix and performance artist nearly 20 years P-Orridge’s junior, Jaye met him in 1993, and the two were instantly besotted with each other, to such an extent that they turned to plastic surgery to make themselves look identical (down to P-Orridge getting breast implants). Indeed, as evidence of this fused identity, P-Orridge uses “we” throughout the pic, even when discussing events that happened exclusively to him. Lady Jaye also joined Genesis’ latest musical combo, PTV3, and samples of their surprisingly melodic and gentle collaboration are heard throughout.
Although Losier makes use of tableaux showing the couple posing in wacky, elaborate outfits (made by the helmer herself), the film often shows them just going about their ordinary household chores together or having barbecues with friends, creating an affecting picture of tranquil domesticity. Only the hardest-hearted could fail to be moved by P-Orridge’s description of Lady Jaye’s death, especially since he describes it in such a flat, matter-of-fact voice, devoid of self-pity.
Nevertheless, pic’s emphasis on their great love means the more shocking — or, depending on your point of view, interesting — aspects of P-Orridge’s life (the fascination with Nazi imagery, his unconventional approach to parenthood, even his musicianship) get pushed into the background. Every documentary is of course necessarily selective, but some auds may find pic’s extremely brisk 70-minute running time on the skimpy side.