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Bliss (1985)

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clip Bliss, punishment, heaven and hell education content clip 1

Original classification rating: M. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Harry Joy (Barry Otto) is a successful advertising man, with a nice house, a wife he loves (Lynette Curran) and two children, David (Miles Buchanan) and Lucy (Gia Carides). After a long birthday lunch, Henry has a heart attack in his garden. He ‘dies’ for four minutes, during which he leaves his body and has a vision that frightens him back to life.

Curator’s notes

The scene moves very quickly and confidently from relaxed and comfortable to a nightmarish vision, full of religious imagery. The contemplation of hell is a long tradition, in both painting and literature. Bliss is like a modern version of Dante’s Divine Comedy and it uses a lot of religious iconography throughout to remind us of the tradition.

The narrator is Harry Joy as an old man – but this is a slightly different voice from the one used when the film was released. The first version of the film, screened at Cannes, ran 130 minutes and had this older sounding Harry. The film was then cut by 22 minutes for its Australian release, and Barry Otto recorded the narration with a younger sounding voice. When the film was issued on DVD years later, Ray Lawrence restored the film to its original length and with the original older voicing. Our clips are taken from that original version.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Harry Joy (Barry Otto) at lunch with family and friends as a voice-over describes his seemingly perfect life and then what appears to be his sudden death. Harry steps outdoors, the screen fades to black, the camera moves upwards and the viewer looks down on his prostrate body. Harry’s shocked family gathers as the voice-over describes a pleasant out-of-body experience, followed by a vision of heaven and hell. The scene ends with an ambulance next to Harry’s body.

Educational value points

  • These opening scenes from Bliss capture the dark sense of humour that pervades the film as a whole. The sardonic voice-over by Harry as an older man retrospectively describes what appears to be his perfect life, one based on family, material pleasures and commercial success. However the visuals as the camera pans around the table, focusing on Harry’s family and friends, suggest that his vision of family life is not at all as he describes it.
  • In the opening sequence, the viewer is made aware of undercurrents that are cleverly hinted at through the acting. Harry appears to survey the scene with some detachment, while the voice-over describes his misapprehension that all is rosy. While we hear little of the actual conversation between the characters, their facial expressions and body language are full of meaning.
  • Filmed in 1985, Bliss tackles social themes that have ongoing relevance. The contrast between the voice-over – which describes the qualities, ambitions and interests of Harry’s family and friends – and the footage – which shows their uninterested, apathetic faces – suggests the shallowness of the consumer society. This is underlined by the fact that Harry’s success has been achieved through his advertising business.
  • The film techniques used in these scenes illustrate why Bliss was a trailblazer for humorous magical realism in Australian film. The camerawork, the underwater imagery and Harry’s reflective voice-over contribute to the filmic representation of Harry’s near-death experience.
  • Film language is used to create the shift from Harry’s life to his near-death experience. The camera’s sedate movement around the dinner table ceases with a fade to black, before the camera rises to present a bird’s-eye view of Harry’s body. The viewer is then swept along an underwater tunnel, special effects and sound adding to the sense of urgency. The climax occurs with a vision of a Christ-like figure before the abrupt return to the scene of Harry’s 'death’ and the arrival of the ambulance.
  • These scenes from Bliss offer a filmic introduction to the imagination of Peter Carey, one of Australia’s most celebrated writers. Carey (1943–) has won every major literary award in Australia and many international awards, including the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and the Man Booker Prize for the True History of the Kelly Gang (2001). Bliss received the 1981 Miles Franklin Award, the 1982 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 1982 National Book Council Award.
  • Barry Otto has worked consistently and extensively in television, film and theatre since the mid-1970s and has won critical acclaim for his performances in Strictly Ballroom (1992) and another Peter Carey novel adaptation, Oscar and Lucinda (1997). Otto has been nominated for a number of Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, and won the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 1992 for Strictly Ballroom.
  • Bliss was the first film by director Ray Lawrence, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Carey. In 1985 Lawrence won the AFI Best Director Award for Bliss, and shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Award with Carey. Although he is not a prolific filmmaker, Lawrence’s films have met with critical and commercial success. Lantana (2001) won seven AFI Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence’s third feature, Jindabyne, was released in 2006.

This clip starts approximately 1 minute into the feature.

We see the family and friends sitting around the table for Harry Joy’s birthday lunch talking and eating.
Person one Which story?
Person two Tell that story.
Person three Yes, of course.
Person four This cake is great.
The narrator begins speaking as the camera moves closer to Harry.
Narrator Harry Joy This is a story about a fella who tells stories – Harry Joy. He wasn’t the most clever bloke you ever met. He wasn’t even very original. But, everyone thought he was a good bloke. And, he was happy with the world and his place in it.
We see someone pouring Bettina Joy a drink.
Narrator He loved his wife, and she loved him – in her way.
We see Harry’s son sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette.
Narrator He was proud of his son who, as everyone knew, was going to be a doctor.
Harry’s daughter appears bored looking around the table.
Narrator And his daughter – was all set to be a social worker.
We see his junior partner eating birthday cake.
Narrator He got on well with his junior partner. He got on well with everybody – even the Clarks.
The narrator laughs. Bettina Joy and the others stand up to clear the table, leaving only Harry and Mr Clark.
Bettina I will give you a hand. Yeah.
Narrator Harry Joy had a more or less successful business, a little advertising agency. He owned his own house. He loved his family. He believed what he’d read in the paper. Why shouldn’t he be happy? He had one big problem that he didn’t know about – he was about to die.

We see Harry dead in the garden with the camera moving further and further above his body.
Narrator Harry saw his death as if it was someone else’s. He watched himself from outside his body. And he wasn’t scared at all. He found he could slide between the spaces in the air itself. Ecstasy touched him. He was stroked by something which felt like trees, cool and green and leafy. It occurred to him that he’d died. Then, he got scared.

The scene turns dark and spooky.
Narrator He felt walls, like membranes, which shivered with pain. And a sound – a terrible sound which promised meaningless tortures like the Christian stories of his youth. He recognised the world of pleasure and the world of pain. Bliss, punishment, heaven and hell.
We see Harry dead in the garden again with an ambulance now by his side.

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  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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