The “lady cannibal” is an archetype present in a small but mighty number of films, growing exceedingly more prominent in the last few decades. Films like Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Julia DuCournau’s Raw and Marina de Van’s In My Skin all feature an unlikely female protagonist with an even more unlikely blood-lust — which is often used as a device to depict a woman’s coming of age or sexual desires.
Joe Begos’ Bliss is the most recent addition to the genre — and by far the loudest, grimiest and most cross-faded of the bunch. Set in modern day Los Angeles, Bliss follows painter Dezzy Donahue (Dora Madison) stuck at a crossroads. Her agent just dropped her, she’s late on rent, her boyfriend annoys her and she needs to finish a painting that’s been hanging over her head for weeks.
So, naturally, Dezzy decides to cut loose. With the help of a mixture of DMT and cocaine given to her by her dealer and a less than healthy mix of partying, metal music and casual sex, Dezzy attempts to expedite some inspiration.
The problem arises when Dezzy starts to crave more than just sex and drugs. A few nights of hard partying with some mysterious new friends unlocked a insatiable urge for flesh and blood within her. She can’t stop thinking about blood — she coughs it up in dirty bathrooms, it gushes out of her shower head — and it consumes her, just like the rest of her vices do.
But at least she’s painting again — and her work is better and more macabre than ever before.
Every second of Bliss feels like you’re on a high you can’t come down from. The music is thumping so hard your heart feels like it’s beating faster, the lights are strobing in a way that makes you feel disoriented and the camerawork moves and rotates in ways so jarring that you almost feel sick — but that’s the beauty of Bliss. As a viewer, you are transported into all of the hypersensitive, overstimulating and disgusting moments of Dezzy’s outrageous drug trip — and it’s just as remarkable to watch as it is hard to stomach.
What’s harder to stomach, however, is when Dezzy’s cannibalistic urges are visualized on screen. Most of the gore is shown through practical effects, but that doesn’t make them any less disgusting. It starts slow with biting from limbs and various body parts until it snowballs into gruesome, gut-exposed and blood-soaked take-downs fueled by her sanguinary desires.
Bliss is a technical marvel is nearly every aspect. The scoring is assertive and frazzled — perfectly encapsulating the unapologetically grimy lifestyle of its protagonist. The cinematography and lighting design are equally visually stunning and deeply disorienting. The use of 16mm adds another layer of filth and a delightful nod to grindhouse films of the 80s. And, of course, the gore is both revolting and satisfyingly over-the-top.
The real standout of Bliss is Madison’s no-holds-back portrayal of Dezzy. She lights up every frame with a raw, chaotic energy that’s impossible to look away from and manages to land some humorous, if not deeply disturbing, moments. If her rancid, lawless and attention grabbing performance doesn’t propel her to the ranks of modern horror starlets — it’s hard to say what will.
In just the last year there’s been an uptick in films about gross girls — Augustine Frizzel’s Never Goin’ Back, Karen Gillian’s The Party’s Just Beginning and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, among others. While Bliss can be read as more obviously gross due to its specific horror framework, at its heart it is the story of a disgusting woman with disgusting impulses that she becomes prey to. Begos expertly advances the “lady cannibal” archetype by turning a mirror to the frustrating, soul crushing cogs of the art world through a primal, unlikeable heroine.
What keeps you locked into Bliss — amidst the bloodshed — is the desire to see Dezzy succeed against all odds. Even when she makes mistake after mistake, there is something about her that is simply worth rooting for — and you want to see if and how she makes it to the film’s cacophonous conclusion.