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With: Craig Sheffer, Sheryl Lee, Terence Stamp, Casey Siemaszko, Spalding Gray, Molly Parker, Leigh Taylor-Young, Eli Gabay, Gillian Barber
Written by: Lance Young
Directed by: Lance Young
MPAA Rating: R for graphic sex scenes with strong sex-related dialogue, and for language
Running Time: 103
Date: 04/14/1997

Bliss (1997)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sex Ed

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was lucky enough to see the uncut, NC-17 version of Bliss on opening night of the SF International Film Festival. Afterward, there was a discussion with director Lance Young and actors Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) and Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It) about whether or not the anemic, repressed, tiny-brained elderly white guys on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are going to want the sex scenes cut out of the film or not.

Bliss is about a young married couple who begin therapy soon after their wedding. Their therapist (Spalding Gray, who's always playing somebody's therapist) coaxes Maria (Lee) to admit that she fakes her orgasms (we see a scene of this, and she's a really good faker), which, naturally, upsets Joseph (Sheffer). When Joseph, a construction supervisor, visits a construction site, some of the workers have discovered, via a telescope, some weird guy who looks like he's having sex all the time with different women. Joseph takes a peek, and discovers his wife is one of those women. So, being kind of a frat boy, he goes to beat the tar out of the guy. The guy turns out to be a radical sex therapist named Balthazar, who is teaching Maria (and others) how to have orgasms and get in touch with their sexual power. Joseph doesn't want Balthazar making love to his wife, so he signs up for lessons on how to do it himself.

Balthazar is played by Terence Stamp (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and it's a great role and a great performance. It's the kind of mentor role played by Burgess Meredith in Rocky. Balthazar says things like "you have to learn how to make love to yourself before you can make love to others" and "orgasm and ejaculation are not the same thing"; stuff that makes sense, but that Americans never find themselves thinking about (at least not out loud). Joseph goes through training sessions where he breathes, hangs upside down, and swims to increase his physical energy. Balthazar teaches him secret spots and ways to touch his wife.

Maria, we find out, is a woman with a "borderline personality"; she has no core. Her existence depends on the reactions of others. She has wild mood swings and is obsessed with killing bugs. When Joseph tries one of Balthazar's secret techniques on her, she flashes back to when she was abused as a child.

This may seem like a cop-out. However, the issue of abuse has never been more honestly and openly discussed in a major American film. We never actually see any scenes of her horror. The entire event is described in a monologue. Lee's performance is extraordinarily layered and powerful, and even physical. Sheffer's performance is fearless. His character starts out as kind of a jock, but he shows a willingness to grow and change and, eventually, a tenderness we would never have expected.

Bliss is really a very hopeful film, with many light, humorous moments that tug it along. It's the first film from writer and director Young, whose great skill is coaxing completely honest performances from his actors. His script is a tad conventional, and his sense of visuals has not yet developed. He takes a very standard route; lighting the lovers in blue in the bedroom scenes, shooting the city in the rain, showing Balthazar's apartment as huge and decorated with expensive and exotic things. But he gets to the heart of truth, which is more than many filmmakers do in an entire career.

(This review was originally published in SF MODA magazine.)

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