A provocative art-house feature that juggles surrealist and post-modernist elements of David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman, Bliss (Jerrold Tarog, 2017) is a leap of freedom from the portals of Philippine Cinema, introducing a genre that shows intelligence, allegory and flawless mastery.
The film follows the psyche of Jane (Iza Calzado), an actress who conquered show business at a very young age, meticulously presenting the highs and pitfalls of fame and ambition. Bliss provokes the mind as to how our dreams, once reached, can become so mundane and lurid, that it burns us out until we can no longer decipher what we really want from what we thought we wanted; from what our dream truly is, versus what it presents itself playfully in our minds.
A movie within a movie – the depth of Bliss is more than just a non-linear storytelling of a woman driven to madness. Its allegorical narrative boldly plays a social commentary on fame and ambition, including the dark shadows of show business no one really talks about. Behind the façade of beauty and glamour comes the deep well of dirt and horrors, wildly projecting the psychoanalysis of an actress trapped in her own dream – literally and metaphorically. The film uses Chekhov’s Gun techniques, wherein every element denotes a rationale towards the narrative’s atmospheric tone: from Jane’s dependence on her wheelchair– suggesting the need for constant help for motion and mobility, down to her own struggle to decide on her own; from her confinement in her own home – suggesting fame’s downside of being a prisoner in her own world; her inability to bleed despite repetitiously stabbing herself – denoting for her failure to feel actual and physiological human reactions, and as on. The film uses subtlety in commenting how fame has taken over the reality of Jane – her constant confusion towards fantasy and reality; film characters and her actual self – this is a metaphor suggesting the reason behind people’s obsession for fame and entitlement, as they no longer can separate the meaning of their lives, versus how the whole world as their audience defines them.
“Gusto ko lang matulog” – this is a line that Jane repeatedly mentions as a form of frustration towards her non-stop, fast-paced life, now defined by how her own career runs. This is a denotation as to how her own happiness boils down to the very basic need – simply, to sleep. All her life, she wanted big things – fame, fortune and a renowned career. Once she got everything, the question now becomes, what’s next? What’s there left for excitement? What’s there left to be passionate of? What’s there left to want? This is a commentary that reaching our ambitions, no matter how big they are, isn’t necessarily the answer to our own self-actualization (if you want to go as basic as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). The human soul will constantly want, and passion is a constant cycle, eradicating the status of perfection glamorized by celebrities and show business, as if they have everything and can no longer want anything. Fame is a vain and tricky concept ran by human beings, who will, no matter what, would end up wanting and needing what human beings are designed and programmed to want and need.
Iza Calzado gives a chilling performance in her roles as Jane, the actress, and as Abigail, the film character. Both of these characters serve as a beautiful disparity built in a paradigm of reality versus fantasy – very reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ performance as Betty/Diane in Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001) if you ask me. Calzado manages to evoke how robotic a person can be once manufactured in a world where producers, directors, managers and studios decide and control you, as suggested by the film’s latter scenes of “evil possession”, representing how a career can suck your soul dry – she gives a performance that’s effectively burnt-out like a contrived product that’s marketed, promoted and sold tediously, yet still manages to give human nuances of despair and frustration. This is a performance that defines an entire film’s motive.
The film’s surprise breakthrough performance is perhaps from the relatively unknown Adrienne Vergara as Lillibeth, the nurse – a pivotal character serving as the very sharp contrast from Iza Calzado’s role. From her haunting laugh, deadpan facial expressions, down to her bizarre gestures, Vergara gives a portrayal that makes the film so memorable. Her casting for the role is genius – an unknown playing the unknown, giving a sublime contradistinction from an actress and a nurse, and how two different worlds collide and crash. This perhaps is an homage towards Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), as it gleefully manipulates two different worlds defined by their careers tied onto a knot of psychological destruction.
Director Jerrold Tarog proves that he is a visionary, as the film shows its assertive direction. He clearly knows what he wants, and he has achieved it intricately with such meaning and specificity. What he has done is for the skeptics – he proves that the Philippine Cinema, usually defined by well-celebrated clichés and stereotypes, has achieved what it needs. Even the film’s own narrative wants the audience to know that – its subtle use of sarcasm with its characters’ obsession for international film festivals, while laughing at the idea of “pero sa MMFF ayaw mo isubmit?” – no response; just faint laughter. I’ll let you decide on that.
Overall, there isn’t a local film as bold and smart as Bliss. This is exactly what our local industry is thirsty of: the pleasure of seeing what film as an art truly is. It shows that the medium of motion pictures has no portals for limitations and inhibitions, where it can truly embrace its metaphysical nature of expression by using aesthetics and psychoanalysis. So far, this is the best Filipino film of 2017 – and I have high confidence that it’ll remain that way even as this year ends.