A sort of dramatized New Age "The Joy of Sex," "Bliss" is a pretentious, borderline risible look at the power of sex and the potential of sexual healing. Despite the self-seriousness of the approach however, the film undeniably holds the interest due to its subject matter, and features a central performance by Terence Stamp that simultaneously comes off as mesmerizing and as an inside joke.

A sort of dramatized New Age “The Joy of Sex,” “Bliss” is a pretentious, borderline risible look at the power of sex and the potential of sexual healing. Despite the self-seriousness of the approach however, the film undeniably holds the interest due to its subject matter, and features a central performance by Terence Stamp that simultaneously comes off as mesmerizing and as an inside joke. This specialized item could find a receptive audience among college students and upscale couples, although B.O. prospects remain limited.

The study of one troubled young couple and the driving commitment of the husband to break through his wife’s enormous psychological and physical barriers in order to create hope for the marriage, this lush-looking, modestly budgeted picture features plenty of blunt talk about sexual problems, performance and potential, but in a style customarily found in counseling sessions or even on talk radio rather than in locker rooms or between the sheets. Version caught was the original NC-17-rated cut, which is much more verbally than visually explicit and which subsequently has been trimmed, although reportedly only in minute ways.

Premise of writer-director Lance Young’s debut feature is valid and creates enough questions and intrigue to pull the viewer in at the start. As they separately ride to their wedding, Joseph (Craig Sheffer) and Maria (Sheryl Lee) express their fears and reservations about the other to their intimates. Seemingly wealthy beyond concern, they are in a couples’ therapy session six months later when Maria drops the bombshell that, appearances to the contrary, she has never had an orgasm with her husband.

While Joseph struggles to cope with this jolt, he and his buddies at a construction site can’t help but notice the stream of gorgeous women who continually parade in and out of a certain apartment across the street. Inside they can glimpse virtually nonstop sexual revelry, and the word is that the stud behind the window is some kind of mysterious sex therapist “who operates on the edge of the law.”

Soon thereafter, Joseph is knocked to the canvas again when he spies his wife heading up the stairs to the man’s lair. But rather than confront his wife, he shortly stomps into the apartment of Baltazar (Stamp) and demands to know what’s going on. As the cool, precise and brainy Baltazar patiently explains, what is going on is some ancient Tantric sexual healing for Maria’s deep sexual problems.

Informing the young man that he shouldn’t feel bad because Maria has always been frigid, Baltazar agrees to tutor Joseph in the art of sex in the hopes of getting Maria through her tortured maze of problems, which are revealed in due course. Many of the scenes in the film’s central section are devoted to Baltazar dispensing his wisdom to his attentive student. Informing that “The goal of sex isn’t orgasm, but ecstasy,” Baltazar mentions that he will teach Joseph how to “injaculate” as a means of maintaining absolute control, and at one point drops the little tidbit that, later on, he will give Joseph exercises in order to make his penis bigger. But the film never allows him to follow up on that promise.

Plunging ahead, Baltazar, who also finds the time to play violin in the symphony orchestra despite his demanding therapeutic schedule, reveals that there are nine steps on the road to sexual ecstasy, and that orgasm only represents step four. In a major breakthrough, Joseph gets Maria to that point. Unfortunately however, we never get to see what steps five through nine are all about, as the film then makes a hard left turn to examine the specifics of Maria’s problems, which turns it into an abuse-of-the-week TV movie rather than the rare risk-taking Stateside film it initially sets itself up to be.

Any picture that devotes itself to the exploration of the deeper, darker corners of human sexuality is bound to exert a certain fascination, so it’s not the subject but the approach that so often nudges “Bliss” over the line from plausibility into the source of humor. The very names of the main characters — Joseph and Maria — immediately send up a big flag concerning the film’s pretensions, and the excruciating purity of their yuppieness will set many people’s teeth on edge.

This is a film in which both of the important male characters drive immaculately maintained 40-year-old European convertibles, in which each room is immaculately decorated, every piece of clothing looks straight off the rack and the characters have no other concerns or obligations than to ponder the quality of their inner lives.

Helping things considerably is Stamp, who increases the built-in fascination surrounding sex-master Baltazar with his commanding presence, impeccably sophisticated style and the not-quite tongue-in-cheek little twists he lends to many of his lines. Stamp stays sufficiently within the boundaries to not disrupt the dramatic seriousness, but some of his readings are just wry enough to suggest that he couldn’t take them all at face value.

With the story plunging right into their problems without any presentation of what drew them together in the first place, pic creates an uphill struggle for the viewer to develop a rooting interest in Joseph and Maria as a couple. Only intermittently present for a long while, Lee emerges creditably in the final, self-revelatory reels, while Sheffer acquits himself honorably in a difficult, overly serious role despite some impossible moments, such as when Baltazar asks him to bluntly evaluate his hunky body in a mirror and Joseph laughably states that he’s too skinny.

Film is upholstered to a fare-thee-well, with Mike Molloy’s lensing of John Willett and David Lloyd Fischer’s production design creating the impression of deep-dish luxury and comfort. Writer-director Young, a former production executive at Paramount and then Warner Bros., exhibits craft and technical skill behind the camera, but tone of the film is too smug, the earnestness of its lessons creating the offputting impression of the recently converted trying to preach newly acquired wisdom to the masses.

Bliss

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Triumph Films presentation of a Stewart Pictures production. Produced by Allyn Stewart. Executive producer, Matthew O'Connor. Co-producer, Lisa Towers. Directed, written by Lance Young.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Mike Molloy; editor, Allan Lee; music, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek; production design, John Willett, David Lloyd Fischer; art direction, William Heslup, Eric Norlin; set decoration, Mary-Lou Storey, Barry Kemp; costume design, Jori Woodman; sound (Dolby/SDDS/Turbo Sound), Michael McGee; assistant director, Jack Hardy; casting, Glenn Daniels. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, April 14, 1997. (In San Francisco Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 103 min.

With

Joseph - Craig Sheffer
Maria - Sheryl Lee
Baltazar - Terence Stamp
Tanner - Casey Siemaszko
Alfred - Spalding Gray
Redhead - Leigh Taylor Young
Eva - Lois Chiles
Nick - Blu Mankuma
Hank - Ken Camroux
Dottie - Pamela Perry
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