Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. So, I argue, is the value that one ascribes to extreme cinema. Whether filled with frank or graphic sexual imagery, or packed with gory violence and bloodshed, or even simply shot as a cacophony of loud noise and disturbing visuals, extreme cinema deliberately aims to confront and provoke. It is completely valid to love it, to hate it, or to even general ignore it. Bliss, a 2019 film written and directed by Joe Begos, enthusastically embraces the movement with a combination of blood, drugs, female nudity, raucous black metal, and photography seemingly shot while the camera operator was having a seizure. It categorically did not work for me, but – depending on your taste for the material – may still work for you.
Los Angeles artist Dezzy (Dora Madison) is in a creative rut, dropped by her agent and out of money for rent. In a fit of self-pity she undertakes a days-long binge on an all-new drug cocktail known as ‘bliss’. When she finally regains consciousness, she finds herself in a self-destructive spiral from an inexplicable craving for human blood.
Either Bliss is dominated by one blunt-as-a-hammer allegory comparing drug use to vampirism, or it is simply a loud and vacuous exercise in rock-video stylistics. Its story works via stereotype: the tortured artist living in a cloud of hard drugs and alcohol, apparently living on the poverty line yet still able to rent a studio apartment and drive a fashionably old convertible. Most scenes of the film involve loud screaming parties, fuelled by weed, cocaine, and alcohol. Remarkably little happens through the film’s already-brief 80-minute duration, until last-minute plot exposition slows the climax to the point of being a chore.
Dora Madison, to her enormous credit, commits one hundred per cent to film’s lead role, even though she has been left with very little with which to work by an underwhelming and derivative screenplay. The supporting cast all feel remarkably unenthused, including a weirdly out-of-place George Wendt (Cheers) in an extended cameo. Not one character is sympathetic, which is not in itself a death knell, but neither is anybody particularly interesting. Dezzy may be experiencing the world’s worst extended drug trip, but as a spectator it is difficult to care. The film also has a fairly queasy male gaze to it that does not help matters.
Dominated by screaming metal music, which neither complements nor contrasts the on-screen action, and frantically shot in a shaky blend of primary colours, Bliss’ one-note aesthetic stretches the viewer’s attention even at its truncated running time. There is nothing here that seems to surprise or challenge – unless it is to test its audience’s patience. The oft-quoted Shakespeare line of ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ regrettably comes to mind.
The extreme cinema movement contains some exceptional films, made by and for responsible adults. This film feels adolescent.