Bliss (1985 film)

Bliss is a 1985 Australian film directed by Ray Lawrence, co-adapted by Lawrence and Peter Carey, author of the original novel Bliss from which it is adapted.

DVD cover
Directed byRay Lawrence
Produced byAnthony Buckley
Written byPeter Carey
Ray Lawrence
StarringBarry Otto, Gia Carides
Music byPeter Best
CinematographyPaul Murphy
Edited byWayne LeClos
Distributed byAnthony Buckley
Umbrella Entertainment
Release date
Running time
112 minutes
130 minutes (Director's cut)
BudgetA$3.4 million[1]
Box officeA$1,144,863 (Australia)[2]
$660,537 (USA only)

It starred Barry Otto who, at the time, was best known in Sydney for his theatre work, and Lynette Curran, a veteran star of Australian stage, TV and film and a former co-star of the popular ABC soap opera Bellbird. Notable among the supporting roles are an early film appearance by Gia Carides and an early cameo role by John Doyle.

After a rocky start – 400 of the 2000-strong audience walked out during its first screening at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival – the film went on to receive multiple awards at the AFI awards.[3][4]


Harry Joy, an advertising executive in an unnamed Australian city who is known for his ability to tell stories, has a terrifying near-death experience after suffering a massive heart attack, brought on by his dissolute lifestyle. Upon recovering, he believes himself to be either in a hellish version of the world he knew, or with his eyes opened to an altogether different view of that world. He eventually discovers that his wife is unfaithful, his dissolute daughter trades sex for hard drugs with his deviant son, and his latest client is a carcinogenic polluter.

Harry tries to reform and steer a morally correct path, abandoning most of the trappings of his previous affluent life, to the dismay and disruption of everyone around him. He is also seemingly 'tested' by a series of bizarre and frightening events including being 'sectioned' to a psychiatric hospital. In one memorable sequence, Harry is dragged through a bizarre and blackly humorous chain of events, in which he smokes marijuana for the first time with a terminally ill waiter friend, then has his car crushed by an elephant and is finally arrested. The extended version of this sequence was cut from the original theatrical release after its premiere at Cannes, but the full length scene featuring a tour-de-force monologue by Barry Otto (captured in a single unedited take) was restored for the film's re-issue in the 1990s.

Fighting for his sanity, Harry flees his home and takes up residence in a hotel, where meets a young hippie country girl, Honey Barbara, who prostitutes herself and helps a friend sell marijuana on trips to the city to bring money back to their forest commune. Harry decides that Barbara is his true love but he is soon drawn back into his old ways, and she with him. She eventually rejects Harry's lapse back to materialism and flees to the commune, refusing to see him. Harry pursues her patiently over many years, living alone near her commune, and eventually winning her heart with a 'gift' of plantings of the type of tree that provides Barbara's favourite honey (the Yellow Box Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus melliodora).

Selected cast

In cameos are Australian historian Manning Clark as a preacher[5] and comedian John Doyle as Bettina's doctor.[6]


Ray Lawrence and Peter Carey were both working in advertising when they met at a party and became friends. They wrote two screenplays together, Dancing on Water (based on Carey's short story "Life and Death in the South Side Pavilion") and Spanish Pink.[7]

They approached Phillip Adams to see if he wanted to produce; he passed. They then tried Anthony Buckley, who was enthusiastic and tried to find money to produce both scripts, but was unsuccessful. In the meantime, Carey's novel Bliss had been published and won the Miles Franklin Award, so Buckley suggested they adapt that instead. He optioned the rights in January 1983 and raised the money through 10BA.[1]

In October 1983 Lawrence shot a 35mm screen test with Barry Otto and Lynette Curran to help convince investors about the movie. Shooting took place in October 1984 following two weeks' rehearsal and went for eleven weeks. Although the film was set in Queensland it was shot in New South Wales.[1]

Commercial and critical reception

Early responses to Bliss were mixed, as the Cannes walkouts attest. After this Lawrence reduced the film's running time from 135 to 110 mins.[1]

Its initial Australian release was killed after the Office of Film and Literature Classification classified it as Restricted 18+ because of the incest scene between Harry's children, and as a result, no Australian distributor would handle it. Buckley decided to distribute it himself.

The classification was eventually overturned on appeal and the film opened at the State Theatrette in Sydney, a tiny former newsreel theatrette with 130 seats. Positive reviews and word of mouth helped it to find an audience and become a cult hit. It won three AFI Awards for Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay for 1985 and played for six months.[8]

Bliss has since acquired a significantly higher critical reputation. Former Sydney Morning Herald film critic and Sydney Film Festival director Paul Byrnes describes it as:

"... a key film in the story of Australian movies. It represents a kind of liberation point – a leap away from naturalism and the historical realism of the 'new wave’ of the 1970s, towards the modernism of the 1990s. To say it was ahead of its time is an understatement – the boldness of its metaphors and the sharpness of its satire were too much for many people in 1985."[9]

Despite the film's eventual success, director Ray Lawrence did not direct another film until Lantana (2001), and in the intervening period he chiefly earned his living as a director of television commercials, several of which won industry awards. His third film, Jindabyne, was released in 2006.

Home Media

The theatrical release and director's cut of Bliss was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in May 2010. The DVD is compatible with all region codes and includes special features such as the unauthorised American trailer and audio commentary with Ray Lawrence and Anthony Buckley.[10][11]


The film won the Best Film, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Awards and was nominated for ten other awards of the Australian Film Institute in 1985. It was also nominated for the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year.[12]


  1. David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan MacMillan, 1990 p173-177
  2. "Australian Films at the Australian Box Office", Film Victoria Archived 9 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine accessed 24 October 2009
  3. – Bliss info
  4. Peter Galvin, "Bliss in a sometimes Joyless world", Cinema Papers, November 1985 p16
  5. IMDB
  6. IMDB
  7. "Interview with Ray Lawrence", Signet, 30 October 1998 accessed 19 November 2012
  8. – Bliss info – Curator’s notes by Paul Byrnes
  9. – Australian Screen – Bliss info – Curator’s notes by Paul Byrnes
  10. "Umbrella Entertainment - Bliss". Archived from the original on 26 November 2011. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
  11. "Umbrella Entertainment - Bliss Director's Cut". Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
  12. "Festival de Cannes: Bliss". Archived from the original on 1 October 2012. Retrieved 26 June 2009.
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