Film Review: ‘Bliss’

An L.A. artist in need of inspiration spirals down a drain of druggy excess and possible vampirism in Joe Begos' impressively gonzo psychedelic nightmare.

Joe Begos
Dora Madison, Tru Collins, Jeremy Gardner, Graham Skipper, Rhys Wakefield, Chris McKenna, George Wendt, Mark Beltzman, Abraham Benrubi, Jesse Merlin, Rachel Avery.

1 hour 20 minutes

Joe Begos has cited Gaspar Noé as a celluloid role model. But he may have outdone the Gallic sensationalist with his third feature, which actually does the piling-druggy-excess-upon-excess thing better than Noé’s own psychotropic nightmares “Enter the Void” and “Climax.” An adventuresome step up from Begos’ somewhat more conventional prior horror outings (“Almost Human,” “The Mind’s Eye”), “Bliss” is as much a movie about addiction and mental illness as it is about vampirism — in fact, it’s held out as a possibility here that the film’s belligerently self-destructive L.A. artist heroine may simply be hallucinating her periodic bloodbaths.

Whether classified as straight-up genre piece or substance-abuse drama in disguise, this is a dive into psychedelic hedonism that succeeds in constantly topping itself, rather than succumbing to shock-value fatigue like the aforementioned Noé joints. It is certainly not for everyone, but those eager for a walk on the wild side will find those expectations fully sated. Dark Sky Films plans a limited theatrical release simultaneous with digital-platforms launch on Sept. 27.

Definitely not to be confused with the 1997 Amerindie drama about tantric-sex healing, the 1985 Australian fantasia from a Peter Carey novel or myriad other films with the same title, this “Bliss” gets its name from a fictitious drug that Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison) tries in order to break out of her creative rut. A painter successful enough to have a solo show coming up, albeit not so successful that she isn’t way behind on her rent, she’s tried to address those deadlines with an uncharacteristic stretch of sobriety.

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But that’s only blocked her muse, so what the hell — she lets dealer pal Hadrian (Graham Skipper) dose her with previously untried Bliss, an unknown property that seems to combine the effects of every heavy-duty recreational drug known to man. (In that respect it recalls “The Jeffrey,” which nearly gave panicked Jonah Hill a heart attack in “Get Him to the Greek.”)

Whatever the hell it is, it proves just what the doctor ordered for Dezzy, for whom too much is seldom enough. Once she’s regained consciousness, she parties like a maniac, going clubbing with BFF Courtney (Tru Collins) and her husband, Ronnie (Rhys Wakefield). She also ends up having a three-way with the duo, during which something even more extreme may or may not happen.

The next day she wakes up with little memory of what occurred, albeit with her artistic mojo duly on fire. This is a pattern she’ll repeat for the rest of the careening narrative: Dosing, running amok, blacking out, waking up naked somewhere, then adding more touches to her “masterpiece” canvas in a possessed frenzy. It’s a cycle both distressing and addicting. It also might be leading to the violent, blood-drained deaths of people within her jaded circle. Or is that just another delusional aspect of the drug?

Movies that try to embody such spiraling misbehavior often fall prey to monotony, and the difficulty inherent in sustaining a tenor of constantly escalating excess. But Begos brings an impressive array of stylistic artillery to the job, pouring on just about every audiovisual technique one can imagine to convey Dezzy’s fried mindset. It’s a punishingly colorful, agitated bad-trip movie, executed with all-stops-out dexterity by DP Mike Testin, editor Josh Ethier and the design team. While Steve Moore’s largely electronic score and a boatload of metal-leaning preexisting tracks also add major value, one minor misstep here is that the mix is so loud it frequently drowns out dialogue. And as we’re often uncertain just what is going on — in terms of reality versus the protagonist’s addled imagination — that limitation frustrates.

While the low-budget film is endlessly resourceful in terms of expressionist gambits, its most special effect is the performance by Madison, who’s best known from such broadcast series as “Friday Night Lights” and “Chicago Fire.” Her Dezzy is a piece of work: Rude, reckless, short-tempered to the point of violence, arrogant, dismissive, both tortured and torturing artist. (At one point she nearly assaults a woman who has the temerity to complain that in her zonked-out state she’s occupied a bar’s sole bathroom for 15 minutes.) She’s not exactly sympathetic, and ought to be wearying, if not downright repellent. Yet Madison keeps this angry dervish compelling, even as we wait for the character to inevitably self-immolate.

The supporting cast includes a lot of other outré turns that avoid hipster stereotype (except where appropriate), with notable ones including Jeremy Gardner as a sometime boyfriend unreliable even by Dezzy’s low standards, and a trio of old coots who hang out at the nice-guy dealer’s place, led by none other than George Wendt. The “Cheers” ensemble would never stop wanting to shower off contact with this movie’s decadent downtown-personality lineup.

Film Review: 'Bliss'

Reviewed at Fantasia Festival, July 22, 2019. (Also in Tribeca, Fright Fest.) Running time: 80 MIN.

Production: A Dark Sky Films release of a Channel 83 presentation (Int'l sales: MPI Media Group, Chicago.) Producers: Joe Begos, Josh Ethier, Dora Madison, Graham Skipper, Caroline Metz, Lyle Kanouse, Andrey Wasilewski. Executive producer: Terry Shaikh. Co-producers: Brian E. Dutton, Matt Mercer.

Crew: Director-writer: Joe Begos. Camera (color, widescreen, Super 16mm to HD): Mike Testin. Editor: Josh Ethier. Music: Steve Moore.

With: Dora Madison, Tru Collins, Jeremy Gardner, Graham Skipper, Rhys Wakefield, Chris McKenna, George Wendt, Mark Beltzman, Abraham Benrubi, Jesse Merlin, Rachel Avery.

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