How far are you willing to go for your art? How far will other people let you go in order to make a profit off you? These are the two main questions director Joe Begos asks in his latest film, Bliss, set to hit Shudder at the end of this month.
Inspired to write the film during a low period in his creative life, Begos takes his audience on a sex, drug, booze, and blood-filled journey in order to find some answers. Bliss follows the main character Dezzy (Dora Madison), an artist experiencing the worst creative block of her life, as she tries to get her creative juices flowing again so that she can finish an overdue commissioned painting. After trying Diablo, a new drug sold to her by a friend, Dezzy finds the inspiration necessary to finish her work but its completion comes at an irrevocable cost.
The film is impressively and uniquely shot on 16mm, which gives it its grungy, dirty Los Angeles feel. There is also a lot of experimental and frantic camera work that made the film feel like the lovechild of Gaspar Noe, Panos Cosmatos, and Alejandro Jodorowsky; our main character even sports a Holy Mountain shirt during a significant portion of the film, which makes the Jodorowsky inspiration pretty clear. Begos is also a proponent of practical effects, a choice that serves him well in a film full of wince-worthy gore and intense body horror.
Although I appreciate the technical aspects of this film, aspects that helped me feel as if I was tripping on Diablo just as hard as Dezzi, Bliss still didn’t work for me in the end. The cast of characters is mainly comprised of empty tropes – the angry landlord, the chauvinistic agent – and a boring supporting cast who don’t do anything interesting with their performances. Unfortunately for the rest of the cast, but fortunately for us, Madison eclipses everyone around her with a balls-to-the-wall crazy performance that has you convinced that everything that is happening to her is completely real. But even Madison’s compelling acting couldn’t save the character of Dezzy from being one of the most frustratingly unlikeable characters I’ve seen on screen in a while, and my dislike for her character left me feeling distanced and detached from the story and its outcome.
Perhaps its worst offence, however, is the fact that it is so painfully obvious that the film is made by a man. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to insinuate that a movie made by a man is automatically bad. But in the case of Bliss, the male gaze that the film is filtered through became obnoxious and noticeable, and left me unable to enjoy what could’ve been a really stellar film. I don’t believe that Begos intended it to be this way, which makes it all the more disappointing. The excessive nudity comes off as trying to be artistic but lands as exploitative and tasteless, to the point where I started audibly sighing every time we got a gratuitous shot of our main character naked on the floor or in the shower. The portrayal of the “troubled” woman, and of female relationships, felt like an unrealistic, cliched caricature and weakened the film beyond repair.
Begos claims in an interview that Dezzy is a version of him at one of his lowest points but he thought it would be more interesting to make this fictionalized version into a girl. Unlike Ari Aster, who successfully made a similar gender-swapped version of himself in Midsommar, Begos fails at his attempt and leaves the viewer feeling that the only reason Dezzy is a girl is so that we can gawk at her body. In the end, Bliss is much like the drug it centers around: an addictive high but with unforgivable side-effects that make it not worth the trip.
Even with my gripes, I still recommend the film. Bliss is a high-octane meditation on the creative process and, as a creative person myself, I connected to the themes and imagery that reference how one’s art can suck you and those you love dry. This isn’t going to be a horror film for everyone, especially not for the faint of heart, but those who are looking for an anxiety-inducing trip covered in grime, blood, and paint, make sure to stream this one on January 30 when it comes to Shudder.