Bliss (2019)

Bliss introduces us to the crumbling world and fragmenting headspace of Dezzy Donohue (Dora Madison). A Californian artist who has run out of creative juice, Dezzy has twice asked for extensions on her latest commission, and is getting nowhere with it. David (Chris McKenna), her agent of long standing, can see the writing (if not quite the painting) on the wall, and has just dropped her from his list of clients. Dezzy has less than a week in which to deliver a completed painting to gallery owner Nikki St. Jean (Rachel Avery), and fewer than three days in which to make her rent payment, or she is well and truly done – even if the offer to move into the broom closet of her fuck buddy Clive (Jeremy Gardner) still stands. Desperate for inspiration, she calls in on her dealer Hadrian (Graham Skipper), who offers her a bag of his latest potent drug, Diablo. This she proceeds to snort with abandon, joining her hedonistic friends Courtney (Tru Collins) and Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield) in a spiralling orgy of sex and drugs and rock and roll that awakens in her a different kind of addiction. This leads to an explosion of creativity whose darker side effects are blackouts, withdrawal and the growing sense that she may be harming everyone around her.

Dezzy is always the focal point of Bliss, whether she is shot up front or in profile driving her convertible through the city streets, or tracked closely by the camera through homes and clubs (with occasional cutaways shot from her point of view), or even filmed, as she declines further into hallucinatory madness, with the rig mounted to her body so that she remains dead centre as her environment becomes a confused blur. This focus on an individual in rapid decline (or is it transformation?) places great demands on Madison’s acting skills, but she is never less than mesmerising, as her aggression and confusion do their endless dance of high and low. She is surrounded by an impressive ensemble of other actors – but her two principal co-stars are not human, but rather Los Angeles’ nocturnal demimonde, and the artistic impulse itself. For the film is structured both as a hard-partying weekend binge measured in snorts and shots, and as a reflexive creative process from which a picture (painted in blood) gradually emerges on Dezzy’s canvas as well, of course, as on the screen. By the end, these two trajectories (descent and transcendence) have become indistinguishable, as Dezzy messily pours her inner self all over her art while exploiting everyone she knows. 

Bliss is the latest and most accomplished work of writer/director Joe Begos (The Mind’s Eye, 2015; Almost Human, 2013). Shot on 16mm, full of ecstatic sex and violence, and awash in a disorienting range of radical stylistic tics, reeling up-close-and-personal camerawork and overwhelming sound, it seduces, abducts and bludgeons the viewer into joining Dezzy on her long trip down into infernal apotheosis. And while it is, one assumes, almost a documentary on the LA underworld (where filmmakers too do their Mephistophelean deals and set their dreams up for execution), it also reinvents a familiar horror genre. For, drenched in the sweaty angst of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) and Larry Fessenden’s Habit (1995), Bliss deploys vampirism as a metaphor for the many (necks and) shoulders of others (colleagues, acquaintances, devotees) on which all artists must stand and rise, and the mountain of corpses that they leave beneath them. In one scene near the film’s beginning, Dezzy explains that she cannot yet pay the rent to her landlord Lance (Mark Beltzman), because she too is waiting for money from her patrons, and they are waiting for money earned selling her previous works, in an endless chain of debt that is always being deferred. By the end, in an ecstatic moment of combined triumph and tragedy, Dezzy will reach the top of that chain, and blow her wad in a spectacular if dispiriting climax (of the Gaspar Noé variety) that makes her all at once heroin(e) and villainess, elevated angel and sacrificed martyr. The life of an artist can suck all right, but what matters is that the work itself is eventually exposed to the harsh light of day.

© Anton Bitel