bliss

We all know what happens with hype: a product gets too much attention (good or bad, it doesn’t really matter), our interest is piqued and we all want a piece of that product, and then the hype dies down and we all suddenly hate the product.


Bliss went through this little lifecycle. One day everybody wanted it, everybody gave the MTRCB flak for marking it with an X rating and essentially banning it from cinemas, everybody wanted for it to be shown. Now those who have seen it seem to regret seeing it, they hate it so much, they want their money back. Is hating Bliss the new hype?

If all that X-rating and intense publicity did not happen and we just watched Bliss like we would any other movie, will we still hate it so much? Is it really THAT bad?

I like Bliss. I’m not about to defend it, but here’s what I want to say: I like it as a Pinoy movie, it’s a well-thought-out story, excellently acted and smartly executed. I think it still needs improvements as a thriller. I have some ideas on how it could have been scarier, but that's just my opinion. How good and how bad Bliss is depends on what you compare it to. If you stick with recent local movies, it definitely shines. If you compare it with Korean or Hollywood thrillers, it’s a little too ambitious. But it’s an overall nice attempt, better than what we’re used to seeing.

I get why people don’t like it: it leaves an overall feeling of “That’s it???” But if you know what to look for, it’s actually almost like a little Easter egg hunt. So what do we look for? We'll look for recurring themes.

Spoilers follow.

Bliss is about a burnt out movie star, Jane, who takes on a big project which is seemingly about her life. While filming, she suffers an accident and wakes up in a lonely house, with just her husband and am abusive nurse present. She feels trapped and as days go by, she notices that the same day repeats over and over again, with just a few variations. Eventually she realizes she is stuck in a nightmare, a phobia she has had since childhood. Eventually she wakes up to a nurse raping her unconscious body.

Very simple plot right? Now let’s take a deeper look and see just how much effort they put into that simple plot. These are the reasons why I appreciate Bliss:

Bliss pays homage to Misery (being held hostage by a nurse) and maybe even Inception (being stuck in a dream state), with both movies specifically mentioned. But beyond that I think there are other movies it pays respects to, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (the lead character’s name is Jane, and she moves around in a wheelchair – at one point she contemplates going down the stairs in her wheelchair, a major scene in the older movie). I also see elements from Kill Bill, where the comatose Bride is molested by a medical staff and she wakes up at that pivotal moment, At one point Jane wears a bridal gown, and later on, in a violent bloodshed she kills the nurse, again reminiscent of Kill Bill's blood fiesta.  But that just might be me stretching it out.

There are many recurring elements in Bliss which allude to being stuck in a dream. The dilemma is that Jane realizes she is dreaming the same day over and over again, a perpetual loop of events that she can’t seem to escape from. This circular process is visible in clues – little "circles" - peppered throughout the film:
  • The trailer actually said "Time is a circle".
  • The talent agency where Jane auditioned as a child is called “Circuit”.
  • Jane’s hit song includes the lyrics “Ikot nang ikot nang ikot”.
  • Every time Jane wakes up, the first thing she sees is a smoke detector mounted on the ceiling, a circular object.
  • A perpetual motion paperweight in the director’s office also appears in Jane’s dream, its metal loops endlessly turning.
  • The books in Jane’s room include one entitled “Loops”.
Now going beyond the physical/visual circles, Rose Madlangbayan, the rapist nurse, was herself sexually abused as a child – this cycle of abuse is in itself a circle.

A fellow movie enthusiast observed that the movie did not seem to care about twists – there were no attempts to hide Jane’s dream state. It becomes obvious early on. And I agree:
  • The first time Jane wakes up to have breakfast, she can’t taste her coffee - in our dreams our senses don't always work properly - an early indication that something is off. Later on, she stabs her own leg with a knife and doesn’t feel the pain.
  • One of the books on Jane’s shelf is entitled “Prison Dream”.
  • Aside from Jane discussing her phobia of being trapped in a dream, a “brain expert” guy discusses dreams in a documentary.
  • Jane’s co-star tells her that she needs a totem so she can differentiate her reality from her dreams.
  • Jane supposedly wakes up in a quiet house to recover, but her mother, husband and director keep showing up at a hospital - this disconnect is a big clue.
The above observations seem to answer people who see the movie as predictable: there was no concealment to begin with.

Jane’s dream environment is built around her memories and is affected by external stimulus that her comatose body picks up:
  • The house where Jane wakes up to recover is where they shot her film.
  • Aside from the perpetual motion paperweight, Jane in the dream also drinks from the same coffee mug seen in her director’s office before she had her accident.
  • In her dream state, Jane smells something burning, which turns out to be her director’s cigarette smoke when he visits her in the hospital.
  • She also keeps smelling lotion – turns out her nurse uses the same lotion when she violates her comatose body.
  • The conversations she has with the people in her dream are one way (her mom and her director just keep on talking and do not respond to her statements) – because they are actually just talking to her unconscious body, and as she hears their voices her mind works it into her dream.
  • The sprinklers turn on in her dream – in reality it’s raining outside.
  • In the dream, Jane starts to float from her bed – in real life she is having an orgasm.
Another probable theme, which was observed by a fellow cinephile (thanks Sir) is bad mothers:
  • Jane’s mother is greedy and selfish and doesn’t really care about Jane, she only cares about her earnings.
  • Rose’s mother becomes physically violent when she fails her audtion.
  • A neighbor, a supposed maternal figure, swoops in and sexually abuses Rose.
  • Emma, Jane’s PA whom her husbad got pregnant, wants an abortion (I don’t condemn abortion, it’s her choice, but if the only reason she wants an abortion is because her boyfriend will "kill" her, that’s just shallow and irresponsible).
I’m echoing a note made by another reviewer: the whole theme might be an awakening – a sexual one. While Jane is a straight female, she is unable to achieve orgasm with a man, she needs to touch herself. However, the final scene shows Jane waking up from an orgasm brought about by another woman, Rose.

I also like how the dream version of Rose, Lilibeth, is always shown carrying a vase of dead flowers – could this be an allusion to her attraction to Jane’s dead (comatose) flower? The final scene, where Jane catches Rose eating her out, is cut before Jane could react. Does Jane reject Rose? Or does she embrace the new dimension to her sexuality?

Bliss is self-aware (and not blissfully ignorant) of itself, and blatantly so:
  • The movie director, Lexter, has high ambitions of getting into Cannes and snobs the Metro Manila Film Fest - they probably already know how the movie will be received locally?
  • Jane says she needs to get a trophy after the movie is done – and she does so in real life.
  • The Assistant Director, after getting verbally abused by the director, puts into words what everyone probably thinks – “Akala naman niya, tatanggapin sa Cannes itong kabaduyan niya.”
So many lines from the film seem to anticipate audience reaction:
  • The director, frustrated with the pace of his workers, keeps screaming “This is a nightmare!”
  • Jane, realizing she’s trapped, whispers “Puta, eto na naman,” and later on screams “Palabasin nyo ako dito!”
  • The director is being mean to his Assistant Director. Out of the blue he says “Gerry, ‘disappointment’ is an overrated word for you” to which he answes, without missing a beat, “Thank you Direk.”
The running gags in the movie are also a nice touch. The Director’s assistant just can’t seem to get his beverages right. She served cold coffee and got a tongue-lashing. Then she served warm juice and got dismissed. Finally she is seen, in a split-second shot, spitting into the director’s drink. It happened so quickly, now I’m not really sure if it really happened.

For me, the best clue to this movie’s self-awareness is demonstrated with Jane’s story about her childhood nightmare: her mother holds a box and tells her it’s empty, but Jane is obsessed by the idea of opening it. She searches for the key, and in her frustration, stabs her mother with it. When she gets to open the box, it is empty, just as her mother said.

The moviemakers did not promise us anything. Even as the story unfolds, they did not give us any indication that there's something more for us. They basically told us the box is empty. As moviegoers, we looked out for twists, assigned meaning to events, searched for a deeper experience. As the credits roll we ask, “Yun na yun???”

Because the box is empty, just like they said.

Thanks to the peopleI I watched the film with and discussed with. Dami kong na-pick-up!
Poster image from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6608136/

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