Young filmmaker Joe Begos has a tough sell on his hands with Bliss, his new psychedelic, drug-fuelled horror. Though only 80 minutes long, it’s hard to tell where in that runtime you are in any given moment, or to remember when you started. The film seems to play with the concept of time itself, making the viewing experience all-consuming and somewhat claustrophobic. For adventurous audiences, however – the kind who salivated over Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy – this only serves to heighten the stakes of the film and draw you into its world.
Bliss follows painter Dezzy as she struggles against her own lack of inspiration to complete a new work. Through run ins with her drug dealer, friends and landlord we see Dezzy chase an ever-intensifying high in order to fuel her creative output. Where last year’s Velvet Buzzsaw portrayed art-world types as obliviously ridiculous narcissists perched high in their ivory tower, Bliss grounds itself deep in the muck and mire of a very seedy Los Angeles. Tonally, it seems to engage with a sort of grindhouse sensibility and the gritty ugliness of the world and its characters provides a savvy contrast to any romanticised idea of artistic creation.
The look and feel of the film becomes warped alongside the narrative so that the viewer is implicated in Dezzy’s drug-taking. ‘Dosing’ an audience visually in order to mimic an on-screen drug trip is not a new concept, with Ari Aster most recently using this technique in Midsommar, however the way Begos approaches this is especially uncompromising. The latter half of Bliss is incredibly affective and visceral, not only putting the audience in the space of Dezzy’s high-risk drug trip, but also letting us feel the sheer desperation that comes with a creative block.
But it’s Dezzy herself who really contributes a vein of chaos to the film. Following in the footsteps of countless male characters, who have always been allowed to be anti-heroes, she is narcissistic, impolite and not easily likeable. In this way, Bliss is utterly refreshing. Dezzy seems like a real person (even amongst the surreal landscape we plunge deeper and deeper into) – she’s not very sweet or easy to be around, and it’s hard to get a handle on what makes her tick. She’s also totally unselfconscious and not at all on her best behaviour, almost as if she doesn’t know she’s being watched.
Dezzy, however, is not simply a breath of fresh air. Begos has crafted a protagonist who is seemingly apathetic about every area of her life except her artistic output. Her burning singular desire to put great art into the world at the expense of her own relationships, sanity and life, ultimately and unexpectedly position her as a selfless protagonist. And it’s her self-sacrifice that really gets to the heart of this film. This is a vampire film where the creative impulse itself is the true vampiric element. In Begos’ world, art is a self-destructive endeavour. It leeches calcium from your bones like an unborn child and nearly kills you during its birth. This might be a film which has more of a pull for a viewer who’s also a frustrated artist, feeling impotent and desirous of inspiration, and increasingly frustrated at the world she’s trying to speak to creatively – although this reviewer would know little about that…
Bliss is a piece of art about how destructive it can be to create art. It’s not a relaxing viewing experience but it is undoubtedly an experience. As the tone of the film changes and it feels as if you’ve been sucked in, it becomes scary and thrilling and disorienting. This is the only way to make this kind of film. A film about art that feels like it would be at home in a gallery, or at least in interactive theatre. If you want out, it’s doing its job. As uncomfortable as it can be at times to watch, the evident commitment of the cast hints at how difficult an endeavour making this film would have been, and so the message of the film is doubled down upon. Begos seems to be mischievously posing the question: Is art worth all this bloodshed? From the audience’s relatively privileged position on this side of the screen, we may be tempted to say yes.