I guess, by this point of the 21st century, it’s become some kind of formula: a minestrone of sex-drugs-booze-clubbing excesses, linked to aggressive punk rock music and “romantic” (I use the word advisedly) outpourings of art onto a canvas, with horror/supernatural elements (as in the woeful 2018 Suspiria remake), a “long day’s journey into night” plot structure (here, a whole weekend of nights), strobe effects (there’s a medical warning upfront, like in Ken Jacobs’ avant-garde extravaganzas), garish colour scheme in 16mm, and all shot in the “you are right there”/camera-harnessed-to-body, headlong manner of Gaspar Noé (Climax , Enter the Void ) and the Safdie siblings (Good Time , Uncut Gems ). As in that very last exemplar, the hurtling narrative of Bliss is tied to the interrelated deadlines of debt (to appease a slovenly landlord threatening eviction) and commission-delivery (the opening of an art exhibition).
Will Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison, in the shoot but cut from the final montage of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song ) make it to the finish line of Bliss? The film is scarcely 90 minutes long, but down, down, down she spirals – spitting and cursing in rage the whole way (Madison throws herself into it alright, but it’s a thankless role). Her helpful drug dealer – who has no less than George Wendt from Cheers playing cards with other old guys in his living room, going all bug-eyed when violence breaks out – hands her a packet of Diablo, a new drug that is snorted in a pure, black line. Dezzy’s wicked party-time-bliss companion is blonde Courtney (Tru Collins), who leads her into a Noé’s-ark, psychedelic threesome with square-jawed Aussie Rhys Wakefield as Ronnie.
Hallucinations – and worse – follow at an increasingly frantic rate, juiced with a light-colour-noise show firing on all valves.
Meanwhile, a gormless, ultra-straight boyfriend, Clive (Jeremy Gardner), periodically faces off against the ever-screeching, pissed-off Dezzy in her studio; as the weekend proceeds, he appreciates neither her subtly evolving art nor her unsubtly galloping psychosis. When she’s not painting (in a possessed trance!), snorting or fucking, Dezzy is driving: she drives a lot in this film, day and night, in jump-cut montages (the Safdie touch). There’s not much else with which director Joe Begos can fill his film.
The art-making scenes, for their part, face a common problem: how do you convince moviegoers that fictive art referred to (within the diegesis) as great-wonderful-vibrant-visionary-etc. really is any of those things? Few films (even the best) can solve that one. Although dizzy Dezzy is supplied with a record-cassette-cover/punk fanzine portfolio as her MO, her painting-in-progress still looks like dreadful, merely illustrative kitsch at every one of its stages. But even if Francesco Clemente had expressly provided the pictures (for a decent fee, no doubt), they would probably still look silly, obvious and unconvincing in this context.
It all adds up to a familiar 21st century scenario, to be sure, but with roots in, at least, 1970s independent cinema: Bliss is basically two Abel Ferrara films, Driller Killer (1979) and The Addiction (1995), spliced together, and then tricked-out with all the stylistic affectations already noted. (The debt-delivery deadline hook also derives from Ferrara: Bad Lieutenant , beloved of the Safdies.) At a certain point, it takes the vampiric plot-option full-throttle (Courtney’s sage advice: “Embrace it – forever!”), but with an escape-hatch of clumsy ambiguity: the corpse-count seems to be on the rise and littering floors everywhere, but … maybe it’s all a bad trip? Movies nowadays are taking too many liberties with this type of vacillation.
As Bliss approaches its ending, three possibilities are in play, or at least they arose in my head as a viewer. One: Dezzy has literally become a vamp, part of a true punk underground – and that’s that, she’s just gotta learn to live with it (this is the basic framework of The Addiction, but Ferrara and writer Nicholas St John – note the character name “Nikki St Jean” here! – provide a final, spiritual, upbeat twist). Two: it will all be a druggy Diablo dream, and Dezzy – “awakening”, like William Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1991), to the magisterial artwork she can’t even recall creating – will become a huge success, written up in Artforum and all the rest (lucky her!). Satire of the art world, that’s called (on this plane, I prefer Roger Avary’s shambolic but fetching Lucky Day ). Three: where the film actually goes, and I’ll try not to spoil it completely (but who cares?), is a variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray. You have been warned.
Bliss is Begos’ fourth feature, which is hard to believe. I’m projecting/speculating here, but he seems either part of, or at least influenced, by a Larry Fessenden/Rob Zombie “school” of contemporary cinema – which has its own roots in bits of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Herschell Gordon Lewis, George A. Romero, and others. Is this tradition going anywhere these days? If you ever want a handy argument against the current manifestations of a “cinema of sensation, hysteria and excess”, then Bliss, alas, is absolutely it.
© Adrian Martin 15 March 2020