By Karl Quinn
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, a ‘fever dream’ of a film that is both portrait of an individual and critique of a system.Credit:Netflix
It’s fair to say that Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, a project 14 years in the making, emerges into a very different world from the one in which it was conceived. To be precise, it arrives into a world in which the established certainties of Roe v Wade have been overturned by the US Supreme Court, which makes its use of fetus cam and its heroine’s overarching regret about babies-that-never-were seem even more heavily charged than they might otherwise have been.
“There’s nothing I can do about that,” says the New Zealand-born, Melbourne-raised Dominik via Zoom from Los Angeles. “If people are looking at Blonde as having a position on abortion, it does have a position and its position is that, if you’re an unwanted child, pregnancy is going to be deeply ambivalent.”
Blonde tells the story of Marilyn Monroe from her early childhood in the 1920s and ’30s as Norma Jeane Mortenson, later Norma Jeane Baker, to her death in 1962 from a drug overdose. Like Joyce Carol Oates’ sprawling 738-page novel on which it is based, the movie is both roughly biographical and broadly metaphorical, seeing in Monroe’s act of self-creation something mythic, and in her exploitation by the studio system and the men who run it something political and tragic. It is simultaneously a portrait of an individual and a critique of a system.
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s film Blonde.Credit:Netflix
Best known locally until now for Chopper, Dominik isn’t afraid to shock. He tells me delightedly that two people fainted at screenings of his 22-year-old debut feature at the Melbourne International Film Festival a few weeks ago. “I was very proud of that,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, Chopper’s still got it.’”
With its intrusions into Marilyn’s body, Blonde is certain to make viewers squirm too. But its biggest challenge is less visceral than psychological; it wants to take us inside Norma Jeane’s mind.
“It is a dream film, more concerned with the meaning of Marilyn Monroe, if you like, than with the biographical facts,” Dominik says.
That’s not to say he was cavalier with the vast history of Monroe, by any means. “I’ve read everything about her, I’ve read everything about people that were in her life as well, so I feel like I pretty much understand where it’s true and where it isn’t. But I feel like everything that’s written about Marilyn Monroe – whether it’s written by Gloria Steinem or whether it’s written by Norman Mailer – is essentially a kind of rescue fantasy. It’s this sense that the artist has this special relationship to her, they can see her and, had they been around, disaster could have been avoided.”
Not that his film is any different, he readily concedes. “The relationship is between the viewer and her, and nobody else in the story understands her, and it creates an uncommon feeling of connection or protectiveness towards her. And then you just have to watch her make all these self-destructive choices like she’s in a car with no brakes and you can’t avoid disaster. That’s the idea of the movie, but it is rendered in a kind of Freudian, Lacanian fever dream.”
Crucial to this reclaiming and reframing of what Monroe means is the co-opting of so much of the well-known imagery of “the most photographed woman alive”, as she was described at the height of her fame and stardom in the late 1950s.
Dominik’s cinematographer, Chayse Irvin, was tasked with recreating many of those images. “Andrew wanted the film to feel like a seance,” he has said. “So we would recreate certain images of Marilyn exactly. We would put the exact same lens on and put the camera in the exact same position, and we were in the exact same place where she stood and took that image. If that was in colour, we would do it in colour and if it was in black and white, black and white.”
The famous subway grate scene from Seven-Year Itch, one of many iconic images recreated in the film.Credit:Matt Kennedy/Netflix
It was, Dominik tells me, all about “trying to change the meaning of those images according to her own internal drama”. In other words, the film aims to bring the context of what Monroe is experiencing as those images are being framed to the recreation of those images.
Perhaps the best example is the famous subway scene from The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn’s skirt billows up to reveal her white underwear beneath, a titillating and somewhat scandalous image at the time. Except now we see not just the scene being created, but the faces of the people, almost all male, gathered to watch (or, rather, to leer). We see, too, her new husband Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) looking on furiously, a precursor to the beating he will soon dish out as a mark of his disapproval (the marriage between the pair lasted just four months).
“The film is constantly taking these familiar images and saying, ‘This is not how it was’,” Dominik says. “It’s changing the meanings. It would be very difficult to do that with somebody whose life you don’t already carry inside you in terms of images.”
For all the craft and intellect at play here, Blonde would be nothing without its star, the Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who is in almost every scene. Though the internet was quick to pounce on the traces of her accent in early footage from the movie (and it’s true that it is occasionally noticeable), hers is a stunning performance in which jagged emotion sits just below flawless skin, intellect jostles with ambition and submission, desire battles with shame.
A sometimes gleesome threesome: Marilyn enjoys the company of Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddie Robinson Jr (Evan Williams). Credit:Matt Kennedy/Netflix
“It just couldn’t work without her,” says Dominik of his leading lady. “The whole movie is her face, pretty much.”
Finding the right actor for the role was a big part of why it took so long to make, he says. “Everyone would read it and go, ‘Well who’s gonna play Marilyn Monroe?’ You watch [the real] Marilyn Monroe and you feel like it’s a person on a tightrope, and part of the drama of watching her is feeling she could fall at any minute, you know. And I was looking for somebody who could do that, and thank God I found her.”
The men in Monroe’s life come and go, some of them outright abusers (the studio boss who rapes her before giving her her first break), some of them casually exploitative (her bisexual lovers, Cass Chaplin and Eddie Robinson, played by Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams respectively), some of them able to see her only in the roles they had created for her (DiMaggio’s fantasy domestic goddess, playwright Arthur Miller – played by Adrien Brody – seeing her as a reincarnation of his first love, risen from the ashes of the Holocaust).
In Blonde’s telling, though, the relationship that really defined her was with her mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who saw the young Norma Jeane not as a gift but as a curse, the only thing that stood between her and a happy-ever-after with the unnamed actor who fathered this unwanted child.
Adrien Brody as The Playwright (aka Arthur Miller), with Marilyn in a rare moment of contentment.Credit:Netflix
“I think the real villain is the mother,” Dominik says. “But certainly the industrial Hollywood meat grinder didn’t help.”
The absence of a baby hangs over the narrative like a shroud because having a child would have been for Norma Jeane “an opportunity to reparent herself … to repair the trauma that was done to her,” Dominik says.
In the context of what’s going on around women’s rights in the States, he can see how that might be a little triggering. But, he adds, “I’m not sure the film is saying, ‘Oh, if she just had a baby, and had given up on her career, she would have been happy.’
“I think it’s much more complex than that,” he says. “There’s a terror involved in having a child that’s equally present with the desire. That’s Norma.”
Blonde is on Netflix from September 28.
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