Our review of Bliss, published March 25th, 2010, is also available.
"What do you think about your penis?"
Let's get this out of the way early: Bliss is about sex, but doesn't contain a lot of it. Technically, you get to see some naughty parts, but Bliss aims higher than cheap thrills. The movie is targeted towards somewhat mature married guys. Hey, I see one in the mirror!
Bliss appears to be about sex, dysfunction, and American sexual mores. While it covers those things, the message runs deeper: communication and how to change ourselves to be more sexually responsive. The central journey is taken by Joseph (Craig Sheffer), who represents male sexuality in America. A secondary journey is taken by his wife Maria (Sheryl Lee), who has the courage to confront her demons and try to exorcise them from her life. Bliss is archetypal without losing the personal focus on its characters. This isn't a great film, but enough care is taken that you may find yourself touched, educated, or transformed after experiencing it. If you are in a serious relationship, you may find Bliss uncomfortably relevant, and possibly inspirational.
Facts of the Case
Joseph and Maria are on their way to their wedding in separate limos. In the black limo, Joseph confides in his friend that things aren't rosy with Maria…she has deep seated issues, but gosh darn it he loves her. In the white limo, Maria is practically choking under the contemptuous scrutiny of her parents. Mother kindly offers Maria a bucket to vomit in.
Six months later, the two have a relationship just this side of dysfunctional. They're clearly in love, but they aren't quite connecting. They seek co-therapy for "marital issues."
Bliss really heats up with the introduction of Baltazar (Terence Stamp), a worldly and cultured sex guru. Against a backdrop of condensed sexual lore, Joseph struggles with the concept of Baltazar and what he means to Joseph and Maria in the bedroom.
I've had some training in psychology, and Bliss is one of the few movies about psychological issues that didn't immediately trigger my BS alarm. Maria is borderline, a frustrating and intractable disorder. Bliss used that premise as a diving board for exploration into the healing powers of sexual bliss. I won't say the clinical foray is 100% accurate, but the premise is plausible enough to set up an entertaining, contemplative story.
It is rare that a movie actually changes one's behavior, but Bliss has the potential to do so. At times it isn't so much a movie as a treatise on how to treat your lady. Bliss challenges men to be sensitive lovers. If you respond to that challenge, you may get "the itch." Just warning you, fellas. I also watched Bliss alone. From what I understand, some couples stop watching halfway through to…discuss the techniques mentioned.
That said, Bliss is a movie. As such, it holds up relatively well. The plot moves in a graceful arc that could be considered placid. I found it subdued and touching. There are several moments where I got a lump in my throat, recalling moments of vulnerability in my own past.
Much of this emotional currency comes from strong performances by the three leads, particularly Terence Stamp. His sex guru persona is like Hannibal Lecter without the nasty psychosis. Instead of devouring faces, Baltazar urges Joseph to explore his feelings about his penis (literally). He is over the top, but in a likeable way. Baltazar is an accomplished violinist, therapist, and sexual icon. He is cultured and patient. His interactions with the brash Joseph are amusing, like Dr. No speaking to an uncouth James Bond.
Speaking of James Bond, Bliss contains a notable cameo. Louis Chiles (AKA the delectable Dr. Goodhead) was one of the redeeming aspects of Moonraker. It is wonderful to see her looking so good in all her womanly splendor. Being a diehard Bond fan, this is enough for me to recommend Bliss.
Sheryl Lee's part takes awhile to heat up. She is doggedly charming/distant for much of the movie. When she begins to open up, things get weird. But ultimately, she emerges as a real person on the other side. Joseph's journey is more straightforward but equally moving at times. Bliss may touch some sensitive places if you aren't careful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The transfer is noticeably dirty. Very bad, very dirty. The grain is pronounced and there are numerous scratches and dust. The image also lacks contrast in dark scenes, where the predominant colors are blue and black. It boggles my mind why directors get artsy just because a love scene is taking place. Does anyone here have a harsh blue light they turn on before making love? Anyone? [Editor's Note: I have one that makes me look like Sting. So far, no complaints from my wife.]
The extras are nothing to get excited about. There is a trailer or three, and the choice of wide or full screen. The audio is serviceable, with good mixtures of classical music and effects. It is a decidedly 2.0 mix without much headroom, but it didn't detract from the enjoyment of the film.
If nothing else, Bliss gets high marks for having high standards. It represents an honest effort to discuss sex and martial boundaries in a forthright, mature manner. This attempt leads to some awkwardly humorous moments, pedantic monologues, and psychobabble. But it also nimbly reaches past our guards and probes how we feel about our own sexuality. File Bliss under the educational category and warm up your chakras!
Due to the boldfaced audacity of all involved, his honor mandates no sentence. Every man and woman is free to explore their own sexuality in their own way, as long as it's legal. Court adjourned.
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