Bliss: Punishment, heaven and hell
Harry Joy (Barry Otto) is a successful advertising man, with a nice house, a wife he loves (Lynette Curran) and two children, David (Miles Buchanan) and Lucy (Gia Carides). After a long birthday lunch, Henry has a heart attack in his garden. He ‘dies’ for four minutes, during which he leaves his body and has a vision that frightens him back to life. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
The scene moves very quickly and confidently from relaxed and comfortable to a nightmarish vision, full of religious imagery. The contemplation of hell is a long tradition, in both painting and literature. Bliss is like a modern version of Dante’s Divine Comedy and it uses a lot of religious iconography throughout to remind us of the tradition.
The narrator is Harry Joy as an old man – but this is a slightly different voice from the one used when the film was released. The first version of the film, screened at Cannes, ran 130 minutes and had this older sounding Harry. The film was then cut by 22 minutes for its Australian release, and Barry Otto recorded the narration with a younger sounding voice. When the film was issued on DVD years later, Ray Lawrence restored the film to its original length and with the original older voicing. Our clips are taken from that original version.
Harry Joy (Barry Otto) dies – for four minutes – after a heart attack. When he is revived, he realises he’s living in hell. His wife Bettina (Lynette Curran) is having an affair with his business partner Joel (Jeff Truman), his son David (Miles Buchanan) sells cocaine and Harry’s advertising agency promotes products that cause cancer. Harry decides to be good when he meets Honey Barbara (Helen Jones), a north coast hippie who dabbles in prostitution. He follows her to her commune in the forest and begins the long process of earning her trust, and his own redemption.
Bliss curator's notes
Bliss is a key film in the story of Australian movies. It represents a kind of liberation point – a leap away from naturalism and the historical realism of the 'new wave’ of the 1970s, towards the modernism of the 1990s. To say it was ahead of its time is an understatement – the boldness of its metaphors and the sharpness of its satire were too much for many people in 1985. Indeed, the film was almost stillborn after 400 people walked out during its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival (another 1,600 stayed). No Australian distributor would touch it, especially once it received an ‘R’ classification, because of the depiction of incest between Harry’s children, David and Lucy (Gia Carides). The classification was overturned on appeal and the film eventually secured a small cinema release. A couple of glowing reviews helped it to find an audience that kept growing. When the film won the AFI Awards for Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay for 1985, Bliss had become an art-house hit. It played for six months in Sydney and around the country.
It’s based on a novel by Peter Carey, who co-wrote the script with Ray Lawrence. Both had worked in advertising, which is presumably why its critique of that industry is so trenchant. Lawrence had not directed a feature before, and the actors were not acknowledged stars, which made it difficult to finance. It was eventually made for about $3.3 million, but Lawrence is on record as saying he doubts it would ever get financed now.
Nevertheless, it remains a completely original kind of Australian comedy, with a surreal and sardonic sense of humour. Lawrence’s poetic imagery is startling, partly because he takes great risks. The film is gleefully vulgar but very sophisticated, irreverent and yet full of poignancy. It pointed the way for films like Sweetie, which further developed a style of Australian surrealist humour four years later. These are films about what Australia was becoming, not what it once was. If Gallipoli and Breaker Morant represent the high point of historicism in Australia’s newly reborn cinema, Bliss was a rejection of the old – old ways of telling stories, old definitions of the culture, old writing, old certainties. No wonder that some people either didn’t understand it or felt threatened by it – they were meant to be.
The film is now available on DVD in two versions – the original cut shown at Cannes, at 130 minutes, and the theatrical release version, which is 22 minutes shorter. Our clips are taken from the longer version, at the request of the producer, Anthony Buckley.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows Harry Joy (Barry Otto) at lunch with family and friends as a voice-over describes his seemingly perfect life and then what appears to be his sudden death. Harry steps outdoors, the screen fades to black, the camera moves upwards and the viewer looks down on his prostrate body. Harry’s shocked family gathers as the voice-over describes a pleasant out-of-body experience, followed by a vision of heaven and hell. The scene ends with an ambulance next to Harry’s body.
Educational value points
- These opening scenes from Bliss capture the dark sense of humour that pervades the film as a whole. The sardonic voice-over by Harry as an older man retrospectively describes what appears to be his perfect life, one based on family, material pleasures and commercial success. However the visuals as the camera pans around the table, focusing on Harry’s family and friends, suggest that his vision of family life is not at all as he describes it.
- In the opening sequence, the viewer is made aware of undercurrents that are cleverly hinted at through the acting. Harry appears to survey the scene with some detachment, while the voice-over describes his misapprehension that all is rosy. While we hear little of the actual conversation between the characters, their facial expressions and body language are full of meaning.
- Filmed in 1985, Bliss tackles social themes that have ongoing relevance. The contrast between the voice-over – which describes the qualities, ambitions and interests of Harry’s family and friends – and the footage – which shows their uninterested, apathetic faces – suggests the shallowness of the consumer society. This is underlined by the fact that Harry’s success has been achieved through his advertising business.
- The film techniques used in these scenes illustrate why Bliss was a trailblazer for humorous magical realism in Australian film. The camerawork, the underwater imagery and Harry’s reflective voice-over contribute to the filmic representation of Harry’s near-death experience.
- Film language is used to create the shift from Harry’s life to his near-death experience. The camera’s sedate movement around the dinner table ceases with a fade to black, before the camera rises to present a bird’s-eye view of Harry’s body. The viewer is then swept along an underwater tunnel, special effects and sound adding to the sense of urgency. The climax occurs with a vision of a Christ-like figure before the abrupt return to the scene of Harry’s 'death’ and the arrival of the ambulance.
- These scenes from Bliss offer a filmic introduction to the imagination of Peter Carey, one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Carey (1943–) has won every major literary award in Australia and many international awards, including the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and the Man Booker Prize for the True History of the Kelly Gang (2001). Bliss received the 1981 Miles Franklin Award, the 1982 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 1982 National Book Council Award.
- Barry Otto has worked consistently and extensively in television, film and theatre since the mid-1970s and has won critical acclaim for his performances in Strictly Ballroom (1992) and another Peter Carey novel adaptation, Oscar and Lucinda (1997). Otto has been nominated for a number of Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, and won the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 1992 for Strictly Ballroom.
- Bliss was the first film by director Ray Lawrence, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Carey. In 1985 Lawrence won the AFI Best Director Award for Bliss, and shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Award with Carey. Although he is not a prolific filmmaker, Lawrence’s films have met with critical and commercial success. Lantana (2001) won seven AFI Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence’s third feature, Jindabyne, was released in 2006.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia