Retro Review: Bliss

“This semi-surrealist romantic-comedy is a film so surprisingly large in scope and so adventurous with its narrative scale and cinematic form, it takes quite the toll on the mind and heart.”

Written by David Morgan-Brown

Most certainly one of the most audacious and ambitious directorial debuts from this country, this semi-surrealist romantic-comedy about a man living his second life is a film so surprisingly large in scope and so adventurous with its narrative scale and cinematic form, it takes quite the toll on the mind and heart. Right from the beginning, Bliss is throwing such strange images and plotlines at the viewer, yet underlying all this is the story of a man’s mid-life crisis which has been instigated by a near-death experience that turns his world into a sort of hell, that later turns into a sort of heaven. Most of all, it’s about romance, with plenty of truly bizarre comedy to go with it, putting the majority of other rom-coms to shame.

Director Ray Lawrence opens up his debut film with an astonishing scene that proves immediately what a visionary filmmaker he is – a clouded misty view of a steeple and the church it belongs to, in the midst of a flooded town, as a robed woman holding a large religious staff floats into view on a row-boat (this opening image graces the DVD cover). This incredibly memorable opening is the ‘vision splendid’, part of a story that Harry (Barry Otto) is telling to his family, a middle class man with high ambitions who can’t grasp them in his stuffy advertising job that he abhors (perhaps similarly to Lawrence, who is also a director of commercials).

This is followed shortly with Harry’s own vision of his dead body as he ascends upwards, before being brought back down and resuscitated back to life. Although Harry is given the all-clear and released from hospital, he seems to perceive his life differently than before and sees what’s wrong: his wife is cheating on him with his co-worker, his daughter is soliciting sex for drugs from her Nazi brother, an elephant has crushed his car, and then he ends up institutionalised after a misunderstanding and is given a new name. Harry can’t seem to tell if his life is now Hell, purgatory, or some kind of hallucination, as the film is invested with flourishes of magic realism, such as a scene where Harry’s chest bursts open and cockroaches fling out of his body.

His life starts to ground itself after he meets escort Honey Barbara (Helen Jones), a hippy call-girl who lives in the woods and is willing to help Harry, but only if he’s willing to help himself, and so goes this new relationship with all its tests and tensions. Bliss certainly enters a hippy mentality when it spends its last fifteen minutes in the woods, all leading up to a transcendental ending.

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Although the film is filled with dark humour and a scathing and cynical worldview on all things love and family, Bliss gradually opens up its warmer side as Honey Barbara makes more of a presence and infects this stiff corporate setting with a more grounded and natural manner. It makes this technically wondrous film all the more impressive with its journey in tone, eventually shifting from dark comedy to heavenly romance.

With all its art-house credentials, Bliss premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, though was met with hostility and jeers as 400 cinema-goers walked out, perhaps because of some of the more caustically comical moments early in the film. This 130 minute version of Bliss was cut down to a theatrical version running at 107 minutes and was released across Australia (where it did surprisingly good business) and in the US, where it had a lukewarm reaction. The AFI was enthusiastic about Bliss, nominating it for every category in the awards and it won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Yet this eagerness over this quirky, confident, and wonderfully made film soon dissipated and Bliss isn’t often counted as one of the greats as it should be. Its incredibly talented director was also somewhat ignored as it took him fifteen years to finally follow up with his second feature, Lantana (2001), which had been heavily lauded as one of the best Australian films this side of the millennium. Despite the accolades, Bliss still suffers the same neglected fate many Australian films end up unjustly facing, though the good people at Roadshow (and then Umbrella Entertainment) gave it two DVD releases, one with the original Director’s Cut version, the other a double-disc version that includes both Director’s and Theatrical Cut.

Ray Lawrence has proven with only three films that he is a singular artist in Australian cinema history – his third film, Jindabyne (2006), is also an overlooked gem of a drama. It’s hard to say if Bliss has had any impact on Australian films to come because it remains such a unique experience that would be difficult to replicate. Through total confidence in the cinematic form, Bliss is a journey through romance, illness, darkness, and spirituality, making it a movie highlight from the 1980s, not just for Australian cinema, but on an international scale.

 

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