IMDB description: “After a near-death experience, a man wonders if he actually did die and is now in Hell.”
Why I Took it off the List
December is here and Christmas is on the horizon, so it seemed a good time to tick off a surreal comedy about a man’s spiritual journey through a possible afterlife.
I’ve had Bliss on my list for quite some time and have been somewhat fascinated with seeing it for ages because it’s the feature debut of Ray Lawrence, the Aussie helmer who made the awesome Altmanesque drama Lantana (2001).
Healthy. I had a gut feeling I was really going to like Bliss, even though I’d read that its reception at the Cannes film festival in 1985 was mixed, to say the least, apparently resulting in mass walkouts.
Lawrence didn’t make another film for almost 20 years. Given how much I appreciate Lantana, I was always really curious as to why that was and wanted to see Bliss to see if/how he developed as a filmmaker between his feature and his (in my opinion) masterpiece.
I think Lantana is one of the most underrated films in recent memory, and even though it’s been years since I last saw it, much of its bruising drama and singular setpieces still pop up in my mind from time to time.
Although I wasn’t quite as taken with his follow-up, Jindabyne (2006), it still had some fantastic acting and cemented Lawrence for me as an expert stylist with a keen eye for detail and human emotion, so was confident I’d find the same traits in his debut.
Spoilers? Mild spoilers, as I’ll dig into the plot a little bit.
Review of Bliss
It’s not hard to see what offended so many people back at Bliss‘ premiere back in ’85: the film has a pitch-black sense of humor, largely absent from Lawrence’s other films, that initially caught me off guard as well.
Successful Ad executive Harry Joy suffers a heart attack and dies for a few minutes (with the afterlife presented as a creepy vision of a plant-logged underwater space populated by a sinister religious figure), before seemingly returning to his body and doting family.
But that’s when things get really weird. He starts to notice that his ‘ideal’ life is actually quite nightmarish and he might be stuck in a kind of purgatory.
The first hint of this is an outrageous scene where his wife meets with his business partner in a restaurant, and they start to passionately get it on in front of the other, obvious customers. Only the Maître D seems to notice, and drolly narrates this betrayal of ‘poor Harry’ to the camera.
From then on, things only get more absurd, as Harry’s children are revealed to be engaged in incestuous behavior while the son seemingly fulfills a Nazi fantasy (I would probably bet money on this being the scene that prompted the walkouts). Harry is also visited by a bizarre circus owner whose elephant proceeds to sit on his car (he then proceeds to drive it anyway).
Packed With Atmospheric Imagery
However, despite its dark, subversive satire and meandering plot, Bliss is a surprisingly spiritual and hopeful film, and, wierdly, comes across as a more comedic, hopeful version of Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
Although the depiction of some of the female characters may come across as a bit outdated today, (something Lawrence vastly improved on in Lantana) it’s also a great affirmation of his gift with depicting the rhythm of life as well as conjuring impactful setpieces.
A couple of scenes in particular are totally stuck in my head, especially the one depicted above in which Harry narrates the story of his mother’s surreal escape from a church during a rainstorm, and another, far more comedic one in which his wife makes an incredibly surprising business move.
Final Score: 8/10
Worth Checking Out?
Yes, although somewhat dated now in its production and acting style, Bliss is an enjoyable darkly comic satire that delights with startling imagery while also being surprisingly thought-provoking.
Directed by Ray Lawrence
Written by Ray Lawrence, Peter Carey (based on his novel)
Stay tuned for my next review, coming soon!