Dominik: Blonde (2022)

For long stretches, Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is one of the great films about Hollywood, as visionary, in its own way, as Mulholland Drive. Like the book, this is a study of Marilyn Monroe as a fantasy, rather than an actual person, so it doesn’t make sense to go in expecting historical veracity, or biographical authenticity. In fact, Dominik’s version of Marilyn reminded me of Steven Shaviro’s comments about Viggo Mortensen’s depiction of Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method – it’s so far from my own experience of Marilyn as an actress and screen icon that it’s not even wrong (or doesn’t make sense to think of it as simply wrong). Instead, Ana de Armas’ rendition of Marilyn pre-empts that kind of judgement, forcing us to question what is at stake in our need for an authentic Marilyn, and in the labour she still performs all these years later.

Right from the outset, Dominik’s dissociative style makes it clear that this is a composite portrait, part Norma Jeane and part Marilyn Monroe. As Norma herself puts it, “in the movies they cut you to bits – it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and you’re not the person to put yourself together.” Dominik artfully blends Oates’ nuggets of prose beauty with his own elliptical style to present us with a Norma who tries to find herself in the movies, but is fragmented instead. One of the most iconic images of Marilyn is of her reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Dominik draws on that conjunction here, offering a filmic stream of consciousness, a dream-like tissue of impressions, accompanied by an evocative inner monologue: “Time is a fast river running through us – already, it, isn’t.” Even as he does so, however, he crafts a deliberately uncomfortable and unpleasant experience, subjecting Norma, and the audience, to one trauma after another, while entrapping us in a constrained, claustrophobic and airless world.

Rather than set out to merely critique the sadism and misogyny of the studio system during Norma’s career, and thereby claim to have resolved its toxicities in the present, Dominik over-identifies with it. In doing so, he makes Norma feel remarkably contemporary, a symptom of current sexual politics, rather than a product of the past. The screenplay unfolds as a series of abductions and assaults, is disinterested in any relationships that weren’t exploitative, and allocates no time whatsoever to Norma’s social activism. In doing so, Blonde never extricates itself from the sadistic machinery of the studio system, which is perhaps the most effective way to encapsulate the eerie fact that, if not for the misogyny of Hollywood, Norma might well be alive today to comment on Hollywood as we currently know it. The sheer length of the film (almost three hours) is a part of this sadism too, forcing us to live through privation after privation, and almost approaching torture porn in its grim and unrelenting depravities.

Dominik focuses all this sadistic energy on the endless spotlights fixing Norma in place and, conversely, presents Norma as radiant as the interior of these spotlights. Against the cosmic infrastructure of bulbs exploding, reflecting and refracting, Norma’s brilliantly blonde hair becomes a distillation of trauma, and quickly shifts to sheer white, prematurely shocked and aged. When she goes to visit her mother Gladys, played by Julianne Nicholson, in a nursing home, she has the whiter hair, and blends almost entirely into the bleached backdrops as the film proceeds. Over and over again, Norma tries to take ownership of this brilliant ring of light, often by repeating mantras to herself that bleed into the film’s fractured stream of consciousness: “The circle of light is yours, a circle of love and attention. You enclose yourself in the circle, it follows you wherever you go.” But she can no more command this mercurial instant when the flash goes off, and the bulb expends itself, than she can triumph over death.

Much of the film thus involves the camera enticing, pinning and trapping Norma with light. The square frame ratio means there is often nothing but Norma in the image, where she is typically shot in tortured close-ups, either of her face or of whatever part of her body is being brutalised. Dominik opts for constrained and shallow compositions, immediately occluding the occasional deep focused space with bright light, producing an airless quality, a sense of being trapped in the image, that works perfectly within the flatness of Netflix. Blonde does for brightness what noir does for darkness, conjuring up a light more obscure than any shadow, to place us in Norma’s perspective as she tries to make out the coordinates, textures and depths of whatever space she is thrust into, in the face of a blinding, all-consuming light.  

Over time, this brightness fuses Norma’s personal trauma with the trauma of the studio system. Her abusive mother and absent father met in the movies, and play like products of the movies, archetypes that Norma has to absorb and internalise. In an extraordinary early scene, Gladys wakes a young Norma in the middle of the night, due to a forest fire in the Los Angeles hills, and bundles her into the car as sparks fly across the mise-en-scene. At first, it seems that Gladys must be trying to escape the fire, so it’s a shock when she drives straight into it, penetrating so far into the foothills that soon there’s no visibility – just a luminous whiteness, like the primal scene rendered as a vacant cinema screen. When a policeman finally pulls them over, Gladys explains that Norma’s father is at the very heart of the fire, in a fireproof mansion, deep in the hills, that he bought with his film royalties. Upon being forced home, Gladys tries to drown Norma in a scalding bath, and promptly sets their house on fire.

This traumatic rendition of the studio system makes Dominik averse to anything resembling cinematic nostalgia. As the film moves between different types of footage, he tends to reserve black and white for the Hollywood scenes, not as a nostalgic effect, but as a way of intensifying his own sadistic interplay of light and shadow. In fact, so pronounced is the light of Blonde that it quickly corrodes any sense of period black-and-white style, replacing it with the cold brilliance of the digital interface. In one scene, we cut back to black-and-white, with Norma holding a razor, a cut upon her face, seemingly about to cut her wrists, caught in an inchoate pose that doesn’t quite feel like a film scene, or a scene from Dominik’s film, but a space between the two. Sure enough, a director calls “cut,” and her mother briefly appears telling her to “cut herself,” evoking a violence that peaks at the cusp of the camera, the moment when the bulb explodes, the microsecond at which Norma is congealed as Marilyn.

In order to present the threshold between Norma and Marilyn as one of unspeakable violence, Dominik largely elides the period when Norma became Marilyn. He cuts straight from Norma’s childhood to the premiere of All About Eve, by which stage the Marilyn brand was largely established. From there Norma always speaks about Marilyn in the third person, as a conscious creation. She confesses that “Marilyn doesn’t have any wellbeing – she’s a career” and tells Arthur Miller, played by Adrien Brody, that “You can call me Norma – that’s my true name.” Premieres of Marilyn’s most iconic films dot the screenplay, and yet Norma watches these as if it’s another actress entirely on the screen. Even when reporters press her about the Marilyn brand, she can’t give it much weight: “I’m not a star, I’m just some blonde.”

Through this convergence of Marilyn’s family trauma and the studio system, Dominik identifies Hollywood with what Jacques Lacan described as the anal father – a monstrous paternal figure who pairs insatiable and unfulfillable demands with constant deferrals of love and support. Describing her own father, Norma reflects “he is a mystery, an illness no one truly understands, a syndrome of symptoms” that quickly expands to encompass the studio system itself. All Norma’s relationships with men, both personal and professional, reveal this anal father, and devolve the film back to into black and white, whether it is her menage a trois with Edward G. Robinson Jr. and Charles Chaplin Jr., played by Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams, who blackmail her with a series of photographs; her romance with Joe DiMaggo, played by Bobby Cannavale, who ends up beating her offscreen when he receives these photographs, as a brilliant chandelier rattles in the foreground; or her marriage to Arthur Miller, whose beachside property soon dissociates into a parched and bleached ocean vista. All of these men are “Daddy,” and all of them are products of the studio system – sons of actors, prototype for sports protagonists, and a playwright ripe for cinematic appropriation.

   

Out of these three relationships, Robinson Jr. and Chaplin Jr. are the most compelling, and take the longest to betray Norma, partly because they also understand what it is to be beholden to the anal father of Hollywood. When Norma tells Robinson Jr. that she never knew her father, he tells her that “we knew who we were before we were born – you never knew your father, you’re free” and reassures her that “you gave birth to yourself.” These are the last men in the film to see Norma as Norma, and the only men who understand the sadistic imperative of the spotlight, perhaps explaining why they are coded as queer, and presented as somewhat adjacent to the plight of women (Chaplin Jr. recalls that his father “drew all the light into himself until there was nothing left inside me except numbness.”) While even this relationship turns black and white, Dominik employs it more sparingly here, and pairs it with a cosmic expansion of the screen. The first time the colour vanishes from the frame, during this section, is when the three lie on the beach and gaze up at the universe, “unimaginably vast and yet made out of what? Particles so small they couldn’t be seen by the human eye.”

For a brief moment, Norma is bathed in the lingering light of the Big Bang, as the sadism of Hollywood is absorbed back into the fabric of the universe, and the threesome reflect that they are little more than a constellation, “like Gemini.” She also absorbs the universe to herself, as Dominik cuts to sperm fertilising her egg, and a foetus growing in zero gravity suspension, the first of a succession of unborn babies that channel the cosmic fertility of 2001: A Space Odyssey. From hereon out, Marilyn fees like an alien, an emanation of the remote cosmos, expanding the scope of Los Angeles, but also imbuing it with an alterior glow, as we cut straight to Hollywood Boulevard, in the widest shot of the City of Angels so far, where luridly neon-clad streets converge on a enormous poster of herself that Norma meets on a street corner. Yet right when this cosmic affinity is peaking, she is forced to give up her baby for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and for the cult of blonde-and-white, which gathers around her in a vortex of all-consuming brilliance on the morning of the surgery, prompting her to don sunglasses for the first time. For a beat, she changes her mind, and, moreover, insists that “my mind is mine to change,” but the surgical light then absorbs the entire frame, and overpowers her will, as “Bye Bye Baby” plays over her soundtrack. Even in her twilight state, her fantasies of escape end up back at her burning childhood home, flames even higher now.

Having converged the nuclear family and the studio system, the sadistic light of Blonde now absorbs the surgical table, presenting us with a medico-cinematic regulation of the female body that presents each of Marilyn’s subsequent hits as an abortion or miscarriage. Doctors displace directors, as Dominik completely elides the business of making films, rigorous to the last in avoiding even the slightest semblance of nostalgic fandom. All that we ever see of Marilyn’s “start” in films is being assaulted, and even this plays out as a tortured memory, in a restaurant with DiMaggio, as waves of white strobe light fracture the screen – possibly from nearby photographers, possibly from an exploding light bulb, or possibly just as a psychic emanation of trauma itself. It beautifully captures the feeling of being trapped, congealed, preserved for all time in celluloid, leading Dominik to present each of Marilyn’s iconic films as a vehicle for this cruel light, starting with the brilliant white of the raging torrents of Niagara, and the cold prisms of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” now mere focal points for light. When we arrive at the iconic dress scene from The Seven Year Itch, Dominik presents it obliquely, first from a distance, and then directly below, while retreating from the Technicolor of the film to the squelchiest black and white in Blonde so far. The film now overexposes, rendering Marilyn’s dress too glary to look at directly, as Dominik films it blowing up again and again and again, until it loses all signification, like a phrase repeated ad nauseum, and becomes a formal device, like the spotlights that brutalise the scene with their probing gaze.

By destabilising the most iconic image of Marilyn, and the film that most literally presents Marilyn as a fantasy, Dominik leaves nothing in her body of work but this blinding light. It’s as if he’s challenging us to watch her films long enough, or attentively enough, until this light comes through, like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatres series, a collection of photographs produced by opening the shutter for entire films, in order to condense them to pure light. This process of distillation starts with the rehearsal scenes for Some Like It Hot, Marilyn’s last great film. Twice, she attempts to wrench herself from the spotlight in the most violent way, scratching her face, and screaming at the cast, before plunging into the murky miasma of backstage, where the precisely calibrated black-and-white world of the set dissolves into a more digital messiness. Then, we see her rehearsing a scene in which her character, Sugar Kane, chips away at a chunk of ice, an echo of the diamonds of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, another prism for collecting and condensing light, while noting that “I’m not very bright.” Even at this peak of her career, Marilyn can’t channel the sheer quanta of brightness, and light, that the studio system needs, and so Dominik draws on Sugimoto for the screening, the last premiere in Blonde, which he distils to the brilliant blondeness that has tortured and twisted Norma, while periodically cutting to the gaping mouths of men in the audience, torn between lust and rage.

All that remains of Some Like It Hot are the iconic final lines – “I’m a man” “No one’s perfect!” – which feel unbearably jarring and dissonant here, like a playful quip about gender from the American institution most invested in sadistically enforcing gender. It marks the end of Marilyn’s career as Dominik understands it, propelling us forward to 1962, where we meet Norma again on her plane, the sprockets of celluloid now translated to the aircraft windows, which exude a light so brilliant that it’s impossible to tell whether we’re in the air or on the ground. When the plane lands, Norma is told she needs to depart, but suspects she’s still aloft, curling up abjectly on the floor before being escorted into the starkest and bleakest white void in the film. This gradually coalesces back into her final indignity: being dragged into the bedroom of John F. Kennedy, played by Caspar Phillipson, who forces her to masturbate and fellate him as he watches footage of UFOs on his television. Women are here more alien than aliens to Hollywood, and to the American president himself, while Marilyn is the most alien of them all. And this is Dominik’s climactic vision of convergence – of the studio system, of the nuclear family, of the medical establishment and, finally, of the entire executive branch.

Everything from here plays as an epilogue, a coda to Norma’s life, as Dominik’s black and white becomes stickier, making it feel as if the patches of darkness and light are in danger of adhering to the screen if the camera doesn’t move fast enough. JFK beats her, she passes out, regains consciousness, and struggles to the bathroom, as the mise-en-scene bleaches beyond all recognition, transplanting her back to her own bed, where she wakes up from a nightmare vision of her own impending death. Dominik then resorts to ugly night footage, collapsing any residual distinction between analog and digital black-and-white, as Norma wanders through her house, hears an intruder, and suddenly finds herself back in surgical stirrups, where the male gaze of the film is condensed to the eye of a “specialist” that gazes through a pair of calipers into her birth canal, like a concatenation of every “Daddy” she has had to deal with.   

Yet this very horror, Dominik finally suggests, is why people fetishise Marilyn to begin with, much as the genius of Blonde is to present his audience with that fetish so frankly that it loses all power of enticement. The final stage in the fetish is the beatification of Marilyn, as the light of the film crystallises into a halo that rings her head, not unlike Laura Palmer’s angelic ascent at the end of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. White light floods the scene, Norma’s father appears as the universe expands and contracts around him, from Big Bang to Big Crunch – and she is gone, as Dominik returns to handheld shots of her bedroom that are queasily and conspicuously amateurish; clunky, blurry, off-kilter, and situated on a non-descript vantage point on the floor, as if the camera has been permanently unsettled in its effort to capture the exact moment at which Marilyn’s life force (and light force) returns to the universe. For the sadism of the studio system, the nuclear family, the medical establishment, and the presidency – that is, the sadism of American patriarchy – get their maximum enjoyment from this threshold between Norma and Marilyn, self and celluloid, life and death, which is where the spotlight is most potent, and where the film ends as well, ambivalent and precarious to the last, as the credits roll over the cosmic light of distant stars.

About Billy Stevenson (848 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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