Numerous works of popular fiction have explored vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. In film, one that readily leaps to mind is Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), and to a lesser degree, The Lost Boys (1987) and Near Dark (1987). Anne Rice’s iconic novel Interview With the Vampire, itself adapted to film, also explores the symbolic “fix” that blood provides to a vampire.
While addiction and vampirism have often been joined at the neck in works of fiction, creativity has rarely been factored into the symbolism of vampire as addict. Joe Begos’ 2019 film Bliss weaves the theme of creativity into its twin metaphors of addiction and vampirism. Addiction is doubly represented in this, as protagonist Dezzy (Dora Madison), who at first presents like a starving artist stereotype exhibiting self-destructive “rockstar” behavior, partakes of alcohol and various drugs. At the movie’s beginning, the color scheme provides backdrop to a bright but gritty slice of daily life. Dezzy’s work on a commissioned artwork piece for a gallery has been roadblocked by her inability to progress beyond the red background which is all that she has been able to place upon the canvas so far. Her on-again/off-again relationship with bartender Clive (Jeremy Gardner) is in flux, her agent stops representing her, her landlord hounds her for back rent, and the gallery owner she has promised her latest piece to grows impatient. Her solution to those personal woes is a visit to her supplier Hadrian (Graham Skipper), who we first see in the sickly, smoky green light of his living room. Ushering Dezzy into a bedroom swathed in neon pinks and purples he offers her varieties of “Bliss” (designer drugs) for her to sample. She tries and buys “Diablo,” a small (but not that small) amount of which renders her unconscious for hours, and awake but unfocused for hours more. On rejoining the world around her, which turns out to contain a house party, Dezzy encounters friend Courtney (Tru Collins), and they sneak away to a stark monochromatic black and white bathroom to snort lines. They’re joined by Ronnie, Courtney’s boyfriend (Rhys Wakefield), who joins the two in partaking of Bliss. From there, they all move to a bedroom for a sexual encounter shot in evocative yet sleazy fashion. As their dreamlike threesome moves towards its climax, blood runs from Courtney’s mouth and from Dezzy’s neck. A morning-after walk of shame later, she returns to her unremarkable apartment, which appears to redden from the dominant color of her nearly blank canvas. Inspiration strikes. Her work on the painting grows exponentially closer to completion, but craving of another sort drives her to distraction. A night out with Courtney reveals what Dezzy craves when Courtney clamps down on a patron’s neck in a rock club ladies room. As the camera spirals around them they dance to the music played by the industrial metal band onstage. The music suddenly stops with a smash cut to Dezzy naked and prone on her bathroom floor. She then goes to her canvas and paints more of what she refers to as her masterpiece.
Her relationships with other people are prickly, with her behaving in acerbic, sarcastic, and downright caustic fashion, even with people she likes. It’s some powerful movie magic that detestable loud mouthed Dezzy’s story has a definite magnetism: investment in her plight takes hold, even through a spiral downwards through darkest emotional realms.
With her increased artistic impulses, her relationship with Clive grows increasingly fractious. “I saw your painting in there. I saw your inspiration all over the counter, too.” He scolds her. Her angry retort is “You don’t look at it! You see it, but you don’t fucking see!” Which leads to Dezzy’s bitter chastisement: “You will never know what it is like to create something. And I’d rather die doing it than doing nothing and drinking my life away next to you.” Crestfallen, deeply wounded emotionally, Clive leaves, his parting shot: “Paint your fucking masterpiece.”
As the twin addictions to Bliss and blood reawaken her creativity, stoking the fires of inspiration to make her art, Dezzy’s cravings fully take shape on a visit to Hadrian. “The Bliss is the only thing that keeps it at bay,” Dezzy complains to him during her realization of what’s she’s become. He tries to talk her down, presuming that her hungers are a drug induced fugue. His attempt to help her fails, as she indulges her newly-developed sanguine appetites in brutal fashion. It’s unclear whether the blood-soaked encounter with best fiend Courtney transforms her into a vampire (a word never once said during the movie, which is highly appreciable), or whether the Bliss itself awakes a latent bloodthirst which Courtney’s love bites amplify. The classic blood shower and the “evil” mirror reflection, almost tropes of their own, come across from different perspective, totems to satisfy irrepressible hunger rather than symbolizing fear. They’re reframed almost as clichés never seen before.
Returning home to paint, she gets even more work completed. When her landlord interrupts her with a noise complaint, she quickly dispatches and feeds on him. She finds Courtney to confront her about her newest addiction. Courtney tells her that their blood addiction can’t be ignored or suppressed, and she must learn to function with it. As her painting nears completion, her grasp on reality and her twin cravings for Bliss and blood dovetail into her creative impulses for finishing the painting as her victims appear on the canvas. The near-saintly Clive appears outside Dezzy’s apartment, insistent on helping her through whatever crisis she faces. She attempts to chase him away, but he refuses. He pays for his devotion to her in blood, in the most literal sense. As her mental faculties propel towards breakdown, the reanimated Clive, now like her, threatens her, and she locks herself in her bathroom to shoot herself in the head. She blows her brains out, but her gunshot wound reverses itself. She exits her bathroom to find Clive, who offers to become her undeath partner, but before she can answer, he’s impaled by Courtney. “Unless you ruin the heart,” she says as Clive’s body melts. Courtney then takes Dezzy to task for turning L.A. into her personal buffet. The two have a vicious fight, which Dezzy wins and manages to stab Courtney through the heart. Dezzy consumes all of the Bliss she has on hand and works on the painting, bringing it closer to completion. In a blood soaked climax, almost a grimy deathpunk inversion of the icy cold denouement of The Hunger, Dezzy’s victims appear and clamor for her life. She banishes them through force of will, determined to finish the painting if it kills her. The last few brush strokes bring her into the dawn of a new day, and a beatific smile glints from behind blood once she finishes her masterpiece. The haunting final image shows Dezzy with glowing red eyes and red halo staring out from the canvas. She’s created her masterwork, but the unholy trade is her being conquered by her twin addictions.