Since founding the COUM Transmissions collective in the late sixties, via Throbbing Gristle’s invention of industrial music, and numerous highly provocative music and art shows (sex, gender, physical alteration, domination and extremity being constant themes, with a smattering of black magic), Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has dedicated herself to exploring the (off-)limits and possibilities defined and denied by societal taboos.
As s/he bemoans at one point in this documentary, people have not been listening to her constant cry of “change” – who knows what beauty experimentation may reveal. P-Orridge’s life project post-1995 has been about as extreme a demonstration of this principal as can be imagined yet, given how it chimes with other longheld P-Orridge preoccupations, somehow not surprising.
She fell in love at first sight with dominatrix Lady Jaye (cheerfully crashing on the floor of a friend’s dungeon, whilst still he). In typically straightforward terms she describes the universal need to join, to merge with one’s lover, and from that impulse was born the project that would occupy the couple for the next twelve years: a series of plastic surgeries and cosmetic efforts to look as much like one another as possible, to create a new person, a third entity, almost like an offspring. So Jaye got a new nose, P-Orridge got beauty spot tattoos, and together they got boob jobs: the romance of their waking with new breasts, holding hands in neighboring beds, is sweetly irresistible.
Andrew Megson was the boy who once became Genesis but now, P-Orridge declares (with some sly pride), she doesn’t know what she is. She refers to herself as “we” as often to designate the traditional self as to refer to the entity comprised of the pair of them. Both had been investigating gender boundaries and the transgression thereof for years, and pandrogeny was the inevitable outcome. P-Orridge ventures onto shakey ground when he suggests pandrogeny as the future of the human race, but expounding it as a basic human right of free choice needs no hyperbole. Equally effective is some priceless footage shot by for Bruce La Bruce’s The Raspberry Reich (2004): standing on a trashcan in an alley, dressed in leather Nazi regalia, with pencil skirt, platinum layers, and a Hitler moustache over that infinitely sour mouth, P-Orridge rants about the right of the individual to appear as they wish, and not to pander to expectation and convention, a mesmerizing cri de coeur.
Marie Losier’s documentary covers various activities with a fine lightness of touch, filmed mostly on a silent 16mm, capturing the treasure-trove apartment and the underground archive, P-Orridge larking about, Jaye dancing with herbs, Psychic TV (PTV3) on and backstage, and all fly-on-the-wall points in between. Talking heads are rigorously avoided and an almost completely consistent disjunction of sound and image is appropriately discomforting during the live performances, and attention-sharpening throughout.
Such an articulate and lucid narrator as P-Orridge would be to any film’s benefit. Throughout her career she has demanded to be taken seriously, but for all the frequent darkness and dourness in performance, she’s frequently given to bouts of silliness onscreen, and the voiceover is frequently that of a mumsy storyteller. The account of the pair’s falling love and the excitement of what their mutual project represented, along with the Jaye’s sudden and untimely death, are beautiful and affecting. As with the disjunction between image and personal manner, self-mythologizing is necessarily at work, and always has been; but the myth, including the fundamental right to change and the will to embrace the abnormal as normal, is well-formed, and P-Orridge has an endearing way of passing off the extraordinary as everyday.
Losier discretely places P-Orridge in a tradition of English eccentricity with the opening old-timey whistle act, and as she chuckles over the horrified reactions of the national press. The friendship and mentorship of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs are recounted: the cut-up technique has remained at the center of P-Orridge’s work throughout her career and finds unlaboured echoes in the plastic surgery procedures. Recollections of childhood bullying give way to vintage TG footage (no mention of the stomach-churning ritual abuse films) and the pandrogeny project is deftly situated in the context of P-Orridge’s ongoing and glorious commitment to living her life as an art experiment.
Amply represented in the footage, Jaye’s absence on the soundtrack is felt, but perhaps rightly so: it is certainly felt in the most recent scenes of the somewhat bloated P-Orridge, an undeniably strange-looking individual, left alone with the almost tangible ghost of her second self. There’s no ostentatious self-pity but there is fond reminiscing, and a profound sadness in the bereavement. If the film elucidates too little of Jaye’s personality to function as a eulogy for her, it does at least eulogize the remarkable love and commitment the pair gave to one another – her wish to be remembered for one of the great love affairs of all time is dutifully honoured and elevated by the film; nor is it much more than a skim through the career of one of the most consistently exciting figures in modern music (although a montage of record sleeves is mouth-watering). What it is, however, is an unapologetically romantic portrait of lives committed to beauty with no boundaries: it makes you want to fall this much in love (and go out a buy a whole load of records).