“It’s not that I wanted to look thin, I just wanted to arrive at my bones,” says Brazilian director Moara Passoni of her teenage anorexia, whose development she chronicles in Main Competition selection Ecstasy.
“Bones for me was the most pure part, the safe part. The structure is very clear when you touch the bones. It’s not about wanting to be thin, but wanting each time to be thinner in order to arrive at this state. I used to think that my bones were really beautiful. They made me feel comfortable. The shape was concrete.”
The film is a sumptuous, multi-faceted feast for the eyes, and as much a treatise on death and Catholicism as well as architecture, whether of Brasilia (where she was forced to live as the daughter of a popular politician) or of the human form. It is produced by Petra Costa, 2020 Academy Award nominee for Edge of Democracy on which Passoni worked as co-writer and associate producer.
The story is told through the character of Clara, aged 11-18, an adolescent blossoming into womanhood who derives strength from the “hysterical, virtual abstract” change of mindset brought on by her anorexia.
“The impossibility of communicating what I was going through during those years, and the fact that I could barely recognize my own experience in the films and documentaries I saw about anorexia, filled me with a violent will to convey those overwhelming, enigmatic, delirious years in film,” director Passoni writes in her film notes.
Clara questions the validity of the foodstuffs that must pass her lips, deliciously framing it (at times) within a Catholic context. If the Communion host doesn’t bleed then God cannot exist, she reasons, while the nun at her school tells her that if the host bleeds then Clara must be impure.
She further devises her own idiosyncratic (and distinctly religion-oriented) taxonomy of food groups (foods that change form, foods that stick to the tongue etc) and learns by rote the chemical and mineral breakdown of the human body.
But desire and a vaulting sense of ecstasy is what underpins her journey into anorexia. She feels ‘reborn’ as an anorexic. The condition confers ‘power, stamina and lucidity.’ Anorexia becomes for her the essence of pure ecstasy.
“I was not trying to kill myself, I was trying give myself something else,” says Passoni. “They [the doctors] could not understand the dimension of pleasure that is in this experience. You feel almost like a superhero, you feel autonomous and you are in control of everything, and you feel so detached that you can solve the [problems of the] world, and you don’t need anyone.”
She derives pleasure in overcoming temptation. A slice of cake is not to be eaten but to be dissected into a hundred pieces. And her body must be reduced to a light and absolute state, upon which flesh is nothing other than a burden. (In an early scene, Clara takes a pair of scissor and contemplates cutting away a pinch of her tummy.)
“It’s very powerful in terms of an experience, but then there is the problem of narcissism. You think you can be in the world without other people, but at the end of the day you can’t.”
The actresses that Passoni cast to play her are slim but not anorexic. She claims that she did this so as not to “create a spectacle of the anorexic body”. Such an approach would be “too seductive” and a “distraction” from the story she was looking to tell. “I want people to be able to go with me into this delirium of anorexia, and at the same time see how everything could be so beautiful.”
A corrective comes later when we see a series of polaroids of Passoni in her teenage anorexic state. “I needed to show the consequence of this delirium, this search, this project.”
“Ecstasy is a film that dives and reflects on anorexia far from stereotypes,” she concludes (from her notes). “The film penetrates the protagonist’s most protected intimacy and reveals a universe that is, on the one hand, unknown, and on the other, strangely familiar. Anorexia, here, is seen as a symptom of our time: thinking that you don’t need anyone or anything to survive.”