Ecstasy Review: A Fragmented Tango of Ideas and Desires

Doc takes on too much with its elusive portrait of eating disorders

4 mins read

Ecstasy (Êxtase)
(Brazil/USA, 72 min.)
Dir. Moara Passoni

Director Moara Passoni conjures a tango between pleasure and pain in Ecstasy. As the film’s title suggests, one emotion overrides the other among the sensations felt by the protagonist. Ecstasy is a hypnotic and elliptical portrait of Clara, a young dancer with an eating disorder. She struggles with ideas of body image and starves herself into an idealised form of perfection. Although her malady overwhelms her body and reduces the physical strength that a dancer requires, it ensures a ballerina’s fine lines in her mind’s eye. Ecstasy burrows deep inside a young woman’s mind with an elusive hybrid portrait that draws upon the filmmaker’s own experiences to deliver images with disarming, if discombobulating, effects.

Ecstasy approaches its dual narratives through a fragmentary puzzle. Provocatively shot images observe Clara and the young members of the dancing class as they rehearse and sculpt their bodies. They are slaves to perfection at a time when their bodies are not under their control. Passoni conveys this sensation through the story of the young girls’ first periods. The image of menstrual blood runs throughout Ecstasy to explore Clara’s struggle with anorexia and idealised views of femininity as her body becomes too malnourished to feed the reproductive cycles that have only recently blossomed in her body. While Clara’s sickly figure draws concerns from he_r teachers, who threaten her ability to dance if she doesn’t take care of herself, Passoni presents fleeting images of a young woman discovering her body anew. She caresses herself sensually in the bathtub, imagining a perfectly healthy body with some curves and lean meat on her bones.

Passoni recalls the experience of struggling with an eating disorder in voiceover. As she reflects upon coming of age and being suspicious about attempts to control her body—the narrator discusses how she wouldn’t let her mother prepare her food due to fears that she would stuff it with sugar—the images expand to a kaleidoscope of archival materials, jarring still photos, and dramatic interludes that imagine a girl’s death before the speaker’s eyes. The fragmentary nature of the film speaks to the ways in which people recall trauma. The scattered images create a portrait of disconnection—that rift between Clara’s body as it is and how she sees it.

Ecstasy marks Passoni’s first feature as a director after co-writing and producing last year’s Oscar nominated doc The Edge of Democracy, which deftly unpacked the state of political affairs in Brazil. (That film’s director, Petra Costa, serves as producer here.) While Ecstasy ambitiously creates a cinematic language to articulate complex and conflicting feelings, it never quite gels overall. There are simply too many tangents, asides, fragments, and shards. One drowns in the flood of images that dilute the core dilemma of the young woman’s pain. The sensory overload nevertheless affords some insight into Clara’s headspace, which provides a troubling experience, to say the least.

Ecstasy screens at Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinéma through Oct. 31.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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