Written by Ray Lawrence & Peter Carey
Directed by Ray Lawrence
In twenty-one years, Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence made three movies with a sixteen-year gap between his first two. His first film, Bliss, caused hundreds to walk out of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and won the 1985 Australian Academy Award. Lawrence was born in London in 1948 and moved to Australia when he was 11. After he graduated from high school, Lawrence attended and subsequently dropped out of university. This lead to his work in advertising in Sydney and then a move back to London producing commercials. When he finally returned to Australia, Lawrence started his own production company that became one of the top producers of commercials in the continent. It was during his time in advertising that Lawrence met author Peter Carey and they became quick friends. This led to a screenwriting partnership that led to two full-length screenplays. Eventually, they decided to adapt Carey’s award-winning novel Bliss for the big screen.
Bliss is the story of Harry Joy (Barry Otto), an advertising executive living in an unnamed Australian city. It is literally called The City, as seen on a freeway exit sign during the picture. Harry is known for his superb ability to tell stories, which is what has made him such a fantastic salesman for his ad agency. After celebrating his birthday with family and friends, Harry takes a stroll outside and collapses dead, his soul floating away while looking down on his own body. He seems to encounter Heaven & Hell’s aspects before being pulled back down to Earth, alive again. But something is wrong.
Harry suddenly sees the world with fresh eyes and realizes his job and family are not what he thought. Harry has been selling poison to people for years. His wife is cheating on him with his partner. His son is getting involved in drug-dealing, and his daughter exchanges sexual favors to her own brother for some of his product. Harry becomes convinced he had woke up in a hellish parallel version of his reality. Everything changes when he meets a young hippie sex worker named Honey Barbara. He decides she is his one true love, but will the allure of his old life bring him back into the dark path he once walked?
Bliss is one of the most challenging films to find I’ve ever encountered. There is the theatrical cut available in three parts on YouTube, which I watched for this review. Years ago, I found a version with more scenes that helped flesh out a lot of the picture’s first act. If you watch the trailers available online, there are so many of these scenes absent in the theatrical cut. It’s no surprise the brother/sister incest subplot is one of those cut from the theatrical release, but there’s a lot more just about Harry’s mental deterioration that is gone. In the theatrical release, he goes from his near-death experience to being in a hospital right away. In the more extended version, he spends time at home investigating his family. Much more time is devoted to establishing he and Honey Barbara’s relationship that feels rushed in the theatrical version. All of that said, it is still a visually stunning and beautiful movie.
Bliss’s most substantial element is Barry Otto, who delivers a performance full of pathos and comedy. Otto isn’t afraid to make Harry veer wildly in his emotional state in a single scene and lets us see his character’s ugly side just as much as what makes him endearing. I think my favorite Harry scene in the film is during a police interrogation after an elephant sits on his car. The officers don’t believe his account and then implore Harry to tell them a story; they know him and know his talent for this craft. In a single take, Otto delivers a monologue about the tiniest boy in the county, always bullied by his brothers, and how he befriended a horse that everyone wrote off as nasty & mean so he’d be protected forever. Even outside the film’s context, this is a spectacular scene that shows how much Lawrence trusted Otto to handle the movie on his own for these few minutes.
There’s something extraordinarily cryptic about this story, owing to Lawrence’s work as an advertiser. He knows how to use images and juxtapose them to evoke specific emotions. Advertisement is manipulation, and so is filmmaking. Lawrence doesn’t bind himself to the reality we live in but a heightened fantasy world akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Sometimes Bliss veers into cartoonish territory but can chill us to the bone with a cold & violent moment. The final scene is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, a reminder that we are watching a story told by a storyteller directed by a filmmaker written by another person. This collapsing reality of stories upon stories is magnificently transcended as the storyteller, Harry, goes beyond this world’s boundaries and becomes something larger.