Review: ‘Bliss’ (Jerrold Tarog, 2017)

‘Bliss’ cuts deep, but the victim is numb.

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Iza Calzado and Ian Veneracion, acting a quarrel on a film set, in ‘Bliss’ (2017).

Early in Bliss, as an eerie atmosphere encroaches on Jane Ciego’s (Iza Calzado) world, the camera directs its gaze on a few circular objects and establishes a visual motif. A compact smoke detector hangs from a blank ceiling. The froth on a cup of coffee gathers into a disc. A desk model of an atom spins silently in perpetual motion. Bothered by distant noises in the house, the wheelchair-bound Jane roams the empty rooms; a high, circular window emits a strange glow, framing her head like a halo; she is like a saint, venerated, but trapped in limbo.

Warning: mild spoilers follow.

The motif of spheres and rings foreshadows the cycle of days that Jane soon finds herself trapped in. She is an actress in her prime, but a freak accident she recently suffered during filming sentenced her to solitude in a house, while she recovers. A series of bizarre circumstances—her unresponsive husband, a sadistic nurse, the isolation of the house—leads her to question her sanity. It culminates in the realization that her days are repeating itself. Each morning forebodes a variation of the escalating cruelties inflicted on her. Is this reality, or is it a torturous dream, a prison of nightmares?

The conceit should be familiar to the audience of Bliss, and indeed the film anticipates a likely comparison. In a flashback from before the accident, Jane tells her co-actor (played by Ian Veneracion) that she has been dreaming about the film they are making, from which she would wake up confused if she is still asleep. The actor mocks her, you already need a totem, he says, because she is already getting Inceptioned. But Bliss does not blindly copy Christopher Nolan’s playbook; it trades Inception‘s multi-level dream structure for the recursive ploy of another influential movie, Groundhog Day. (Although Bliss does have a multi-level element in the form of the film-within-the-film, also titled ‘Bliss’, and there is an easy-to-miss punchline in the credits sequence about this.)

That Bliss blends two storytelling tropes together is not merely a cheap gimmick. Dreams and cycles are the film’s chosen means of telling its message. In one scene, Jane shares about a recurrent childhood dream of hers, where her mother Jillian (Shamaine Buencamino) would tease her with a box she knows to be empty anyway. But her mother’s manner of tempting her with the prize would fill her with so much desire. In frustration she would even hurt her mother, but when she finally gets the box, she would be faced with the gaping emptiness of her wish.

It is a beautiful and affecting metaphor for the hollowness of fame; a profound warning against excessive ambition and the loneliness of achievement. The scene is one of only a few in the film where Jane is characterized not as a helpless victim, but as someone partly responsible for her own imprisonment.

The other side of Bliss‘s statement, of being an exposé on the “cycle of abuse” prevalent in the entertainment industry, is clearer. The ‘cycle’ is rubbed-in crudely with the literal cycle that entraps Jane. The halo image is more subtle: under the public light of glamour, actors are easily venerated as blessed people, but the limbo of mistreatment they inhabit often goes unseen.

Iza Calzado, in a wheelchair with a circular window behind her head, as Jane Ciego in ‘Bliss’ (2017).

Beyond Jane, Bliss illuminates a few other figures. Her relationship with her stage mom of a mother is complex; there is resentment and exploitation, but there is also genuine daughterly yearning. Other characters have emphasized satirical aspects, such as Ian Veneracion’s playboy of an actor. The extreme is embodied by the director Lexter Palao (Audie Gemora), who is a flamboyant caricature of the ambitious, Cannes-dreaming filmmaker.

Jerrold Tarog himself believes that a movie achieves a sense of completeness if it evokes a full range of emotions, and this shows in how Bliss, despite being a horror/suspense-thriller, delivers a measure of absurdist humor. (Jillian, in a TV interview scene complete with sad-music cues, prays and pleads ridiculously for her daughter’s recovery.) The comedic scenes are subdued appropriately to fit in the film’s overall tone.

Bliss is suspenseful, but not exactly thrilling. Plot twists are heavily hinted at and gradually revealed, rather than being unveiled in a mind-blowing, upbeat sequence. The cyclic scenes can drag and feel a little too repetitive at some point, although the nonlinear narrative structure (a form perfectly employed in another Tarog film, Sana Dati) is thoroughly engaging. What Bliss definitely lacks is horror: there are a few jump scares, but barely any horror of the profound, creeping kind. Instead, the film delivers an intense atmosphere. The incessant cruelty effectively builds a sense of numbness and despair, a pervasive feeling of misery embodied by Jane even as the story cuts deep into its themes of abuse and deprivation.

In another TV interview scene later in the film, the director Lexter remarks that the film-within-the-film is entitled ‘Bliss’ as a reference to the movie Misery. The connection is unexplained and comes across as absurd reasoning, but it is interesting because of the film’s subject of exposé, the entertainment industry. A recent film, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2, also sheds light on the problems of the industry; but whereas Septic Tank 2 attacks the shortcomings of the industry with a serving of laughter and bliss, Bliss itself exposes the struggles of entertainment with a heavy dose of misery.

The film stills in this article were screen-captured from the film’s official trailer on YouTube.

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