Craig Sheffer, Sheryl Lee, Terence Stamp, and Spalding Gray star in this audaciously honest look at sexual intimacy and emotional risk.
On his wedding day, Joseph (Craig Sheffer) nervously admits that his wife (Sheryl Lee) is not quite like other women. But his beautiful bride is more than just the “impulsive, compulsive, obsessive” woman he thinks he knows. And when Joseph discovers she is hiding troubling secrets, it sends them both on a sexual odyssey that will either destroy or redeem their relationship.
Erasing all boundaries between sex, love and commitment, “Bliss may be one of the most daring and explicit films ever made.” -William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligence
‘Bliss’ is a film I’ve wanted to see again for well over a dozen years, but it’s impossible to find on DVD over here. I first saw it at the video store I worked at, but it’s long gone now and they only had it on VHS at the time (which, I presume, they no longer had in their final years).
It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination: it’s a low-budget production that could be comparable to a good TV movie, and it has b-list actors of varying grade. It also doesn’t much of a story; it’s about as eventful as any late-night blue movie.
However, it is much deeper than your average blue movie. And yet it’s more explicit than your average TV movie (in fact, I highly doubt it would play on most channels in an uncensored form). Basically, it’s ostracizing two key audiences.
So what is the appeal of this film?
At the onset, when I first saw this, the appeal was Sheryl Lee. I had a small crush on her in her ‘Twin Peaks’ days, and, while she was never the greatest actress around, I was rather fond of her. I also found that she frequently made intriguing or boundary-pushing films. Mix that up with the promise of titillation, and you had a winner.
But that was my first impression. There was a lot more than meets the eye in that small, forgotten film. After seeing it, a lot changed.
The film essentially introduces North American audience to a more sophisticated (dare I say this? I’m a little biased in this case…) approach to sexual connection; it incorporates ancient Taoist methods and attitudes to sexuality, as well as others, and completely turns its back on our traditional “wham bam thank you ma’am” approach.
These are things that I’ve read about and tried to practice since my late teens, having discovered Jolan Chang’s book “The Tao of Love and Sex’ through a girl I was lovesick for. My whole world was forever altered after reading this tome. It was surprising, but refreshing, to find that material flowing through an American motion picture.
The fact is that what may look hokey and/or new age-y to the average audience, is actually documented and has been practiced for millenia in other parts of the world. While I can completely see how someone might scoff at the practices that are laid out throughout the movie, they would only appear preposterous to the uninitiated.
The key problem, of course, is that the average audience wouldn’t know this. They would watch this wondering what the heck these people are blabbing about, thinking it’s complete BS. From that perspective, the film fails. It tries its best, though: Terence Stamp’s therapist character helps Joseph transition from one world view to another, trying to carry its audience with them.
But that’s also why there isn’t much story behind this: it’s almost like a “how-to” made into film. There is some minor tension from time to time, and then a little drama towards the end, but, otherwise, it’s a fairly bare script. The only true way to appreciate it is by embracing its ways and watching the characters develop gradually.
Because, even though the cast is replete with b-list actors, they manage to convey the complexity of their characters, their pain, challenges, hopes and dreams, and show them evolving as human beings. Stamp’s character doesn’t change much, being the teacher, but he shines anyway, displaying intelligence, wisdom, patience and caring; he was perfectly cast and I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.
It was a bold move on all the main actors’ parts to be in such a picture: its truth is not self-evident and it is not easily accessible. Even though I think it would have been more powerful with a stronger cast (or maybe a different director for those actors?), I can’t help but have respect for them for taking on such an unconventional film.
In the end, ‘Bliss’ is about sexual healing. It’s about the power of intimacy to help people connect with each other and reconnect parts of themselves. I completely, wholeheartedly, believe that there’s more to sex than just getting off, and this is probably why ‘Bliss’ is so fascinating to me; it completely feels real, credible, to me.
It’s not perfect, admittedly. The editing, in particular, was a little off-putting: there were many more fade outs than would be natural in another film of this length – as though the filmmakers didn’t know how else to piece it together (or maybe the filmmakers only expected the thing to be seen on television and were transitioning scenes for commercial breaks. Who knows…).
Either way, ‘Bliss’ looks like a low-budget film that was made with care, with heart, despite its limitations. It’s an intelligent little gem with surmountable flaws. But it’s one that I’d only recommend to someone willing to go into it with an open mind. It’s a first step into a new world, if so desired.
In the end, while I rate it 8.25, from an objective standpoint I think the average person would likely give it a 7.25 (based on my rating system, I mean ). But my own personal rating stands. I’m totally into ‘Bliss’.