Reviewed in Summer 1998
Director: Lance Young. Cast: Craig Sheffer, Sheryl Lee, Terence Stamp, Lois Chiles, Leigh Taylor Young. Screenplay: Lance Young.

(Like a lot of what I wrote in college, this assessment doesn't stand up at all. Bliss deserves a C at best. But you can't change history, so... here's what I thought on first pass.)

Calling it "bliss" might be overstating it, but writer-director Lance Young's debut feature is remarkably and refreshingly more than the live-action Joy of Sex enaction it might have been. Craig Sheffer (Fall) and Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer) play a relatively wealthy and contented couple whose only real roadblack is the wife's inability to enjoy fully their sexual interactions. Specifically, Mary confesses to her husband in one of their joint therapy sessions with a marriage counselor that she fakes her orgasms. Joseph feels instantly inadequate, slightly more frustrated with what he sees as his own failure to satisfy his wife than he is with her own reluctance to voice her misgivings.

Soon after, both Joseph and Mary (trust me, the Biblical allusions mean nothing) become reverential clients of Balthazar (Terence Stamp, the doyenne of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), a "tantric sex healer" or some other such shaman-like being who wears lots of silky fabrics, does his own exotic interior decorating, and promises to guide both Joseph and Mary to the sexual nirvana they have so far failed to achieve. The film that follows this premise, though it initially earned in NC-17 from the MPAA, is not only less explicit than it might have been in depicting Balthazar's "therapies"—though it certainly must be admitted that Sheffer and Lee prove themselves to be quick and devoted students—but it also takes a nicely ungiggly and straightforward approach to its potentially tawdry material.

The performances of the lead actors all contribute to Bliss' pleasant transcendence of its late-night-on-Cinemax inclinations. Lee gets saddled with a character arc—a childhood of victimization leading into a shaky and panicked adulthood—that feels disappointingly familiar, but she plays it sparely and appealingly enough that we don't give up on her; Sheffer, by contrast, is a somewhat less engaging behavior, but Young's screenplay imbues the character with anxieties about body image and other crises of self-perception that men in the cinema rarely admit, much less confront. Stamp has a whale of a time with his part, playing Balthazar with a robust physicality and earnest professional discipline, but not so seriously that the project becomes pretentious. Even Stamp isn't sure what to do with the arbitrary love interest Young's script yields up (played by the always-underused Lois Chiles), but Bliss still deserves a pat on the back, or a pat somewhere, for showing that any material, however risky, can involve and interest us when delivered with grace and restraint. Grade: B

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