We have seen the surge of women in lead, even titular, roles in the recent years. In a way, they are a sign of progress for women inclusion in the field of cinema.
Meanwhile, it is essential to examine further how women, much like other vulnerable sectors of society, are depicted in films. Is their inclusion in cinema empowering? Is the use of their image revolutionary? Does the cinematic work support the plight of women?
In this video essay, we look at how Bliss uses the image of a woman in a psycho-thriller narrative. Particularly, we discuss how the film depicts a woman as a protagonist while also silences her and deems her helpless.
Bliss, a 2017 film by Jerrold Tarog, is about an actress who was involved in an accident that left her disabled. She found herself in a house being exploited by her husband and abused by a hired nurse. As she stays longer in the house, she further descends into insanity.
Bliss is probably Tarog’s bravest work. He experimented a lot with the style and language of the film. As the film tells a sensitive topic of mental health, it didn’t shy away from including images of graphic nudity, sexuality, rape, and violence. The film’s release was even marred with controversy as it was rated X by the country’s censor board. After some tweaks, it was eventually classified as R18, meaning it was allowed to be shown in public who are 18 and above.
It is refreshing to see Tarog, well-known for its people-pleasing films like Heneral Luna and Goyo, go outside the confines of popular cinema. In Bliss, it was as if he was not making an effort to appeal to the public’s taste. With the gory scenes, hard-to-follow storytelling, and overly sexual images, it seemed as if Tarog’s producers gave him the liberty to tell the story in his own terms.
But this video essay is not about Bliss’ film production process. This time, we wanted to focus on how Bliss has fallen victim to the problematic trends of psychological-thriller genre.
The film revolves around the female protagonist who is her family’s bread winner. She has to suffer the cruel showbusiness industry in order to achieve dreams that aren’t even hers. Despite her hard work, she lives a difficult life where her mom and her husband are the ones who reap her financial earnings.
While the story paints her as a strong, independent woman, it was noticeable how the film chose to rob her off of her voice. In the entire narrative, Jane was continuously victimized and oppressed without a chance of resistance. Until the end, she remained voiceless and powerless.
Cinema has a long history of silencing women. For the majority of the film history, they are regarded as accessories to lead male roles. But what is different with Bliss is that the film consciously decided to employ a female protagonist. And while the screen time is mostly dedicated to her, she does not have any control of her own fate. It was painfully disappointing to watch the film’s ending where Jane remained immobile while the people around her continue to ruin her life.
The film’s cinematography does not help either. The shots objectify and sexualize Jane. Sex scenes are unnecessarily long and dragging. The images go beyond telling the story. At some points, the shots tend to romanticize abuse and violence. It was as if the camera enjoys watching the pain suffered by the protagonist.
Also, it was disturbing to see how the film antagonized a rape victim. Lilibeth, a mentally disturbed nurse, was painted as evil for inflicting pain to her unknowing victims. In doing so, the film defined her based on her trauma. She has no redemption arc as her fate is decided upon by her past experience.
These pitfalls committed by Bliss has something to do with the genre it follows. The film adds to the list of psycho-thriller films that silence women. From Hitchcock’s obsession with victimizing blondes to contemporary Filipino film’s antagonistic view towards strong women figures, women are often reduced as mentally unstable, havoc-causing, irrational characters. At first, they are painted as powerful figures capable of achieving their dreams and defining their fate. But, in the latter part of the story they are robbed off of this power and are instead reduced to their mental illnesses and problems.
While Bliss is laudable for showing the other side of Tarog, its use and depiction of a woman’s image remain problematic. The film is a reminder that while filmmakers try to experiment and innovate their personal styles and storytelling in film, they also have to pay attention to the pitfalls and limitations of their medium. In the case of Bliss, its filmmakers could have paid more attention to how they portray women in their narrative. Understanding the limits of psycho-thriller and how the genre has the tendency to silence women characters could have made Bliss a better film.