Criminally Neglected: Bliss and the Genius of Terence Stamp

 In this continuing series on The Movie Sleuth, we will highlight some of the best underrated films that no one has seen, and performers deserving of our long overdue recognition.

From this angle, I'm
guessing they're doing
it doggie.
Bliss is one of those rare gems you used to find while trolling the local video store shelves. And let’s be honest: You picked it up because it looked like softcore porn. I mean, come on, just look at that. Cover art that brazenly screams bargain bin pick-me-up.

However, if you look closer, you’ll see a rather enthusiastic plug from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. This is the point where you turn the box over and start reading about the film: The story of a newly married couple falling on hard times who come into the company of a sex therapist. This is when you either put the box back, or place your faith in the performers and rent this video nasty.

For those of you who did rent it - and given from the random polling I’ve conducted over the 15 or so years I’ve been a vocal proponent of this flick, the vast majority of you did not - you found yourself swept away on an emotional tidal wave of three lives unfolding on screen. This is an acting tour de force as rare as finding a watchable moment in the series finale of Dexter.

Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) plays Maria, a troubled, crackling live wire of obsessive-compulsive repressed rage. Her husband Joseph is played by Craig Sheffer, whose acting career has been largely hit-or-miss over the years, popping up in cult titles like Nightbreed, or disappearing into small character parts like in the vastly under appreciated Fire in the Sky. Here, Sheffer hits just the right note as an insecure man struggling to be every inch the husband he believes his wife wants. Yet, how can be become that man when neither one of them knows the whole truth about each other, or better yet, about themselves?

Whoa. Dude, that’s deep.
Terence Stamp playing the
world's.....normal sized violin
for the sad folk who haven't
experienced his genius.

Enter Terence Stamp as the sex therapist, Baltazar. This is a role that would have completely crushed most actors like an empty beer can on Bourbon Street. Stamp is required to deliver lines that would sound completely out of place or comedic if done wrong, but nails every single one of them in a performance of impeccable style, suave, and mysteriously deep intelligence. He is the glue that holds the entire film together. Mark my words: If this film had seen a wide release back in 1997, Robin Williams would not have won his Oscar for Good Will Hunting.

And it’s not just that Stamp is that good. He creates a character that stands so iconic in my memory that he, and the film as a whole, become a transcendent experience that happens to you as you watch it. By the time the second act of Bliss is coming to a close, you’ve lost the awareness that you’re even watching a movie - this snapshot of these three lives becomes real, urgent, and heart-wrenching in ways that few films ever achieve. It’s a phenomenal feat, most especially since it was done by a first-time writer-director, Lance Young, who has not made a film since. Not only are we given a poignant portrait of these relationships, but we also are given tremendous insight into their desires as well as our own. First-time filmmakers rarely have so much to say, and Young calls our attention to issues most fear to approach, allowing us to understand them so deeply because we’ve connected to the people going through hell.

Taken as a whole, the film is not without flaws; it’s the definition of a “flawed masterpiece". The opening scenes, while doing well to establish the world of these characters, seem like a rushed and jumbled preamble to the seamless symphony that awaits upon Terence Stamp’s arrival. Why has this man not gotten the acclaim that performances such as this rightfully deserve? If you ask me, I think the time has come for someone to offer this actor another role suitable for his extraordinarily talents. It might be 30 years late, but it’s time to kneel before Zod!

 - Blake O. Kleiner

Bliss is available on DVD on 
click to buy