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Marilyn Monroe in Blonde: The body on the bed

While it claims to be more, the Netflix film reduces the Hollywood legend to a sexual and sexualised object

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in a scene from Blonde. (Netflix via AP)

At the age of 15, while on vacation in Goa, I came across a “true crime” book with a tantalising promise: The revelation of how Marilyn Monroe really died. I don’t remember much about it — the title and the name of the author, for instance, have been wiped clean from my memory — but I recall vividly the book’s central argument, shored up with tons of detail (gossip and rumour, most likely) about wiretaps, Soviet spies, barbiturate-spiked drinks, mob bosses and at least one forced abortion: The Kennedys got Monroe killed and then staged her death as a suicide. The actor herself was already dead at the beginning of the story, her corpse discovered sprawled across the bed in the home where she lived alone. Every good whodunit begins with a body and in this fervently-narrated “murder” mystery, that body was Marilyn Monroe.

In its artistry, ambition and intention — as articulated by its director Andrew Dominik — the recent Netflix film Blonde is very different from the tattered paperback I read 20 years ago in a Calangute beach shack. Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, the movie is positioned as a biopic (despite being, in fact, a heavily fictionalised account of Monroe’s life), and takes us from her traumatic childhood as Norma Jeane, the daughter of an abusive single mother with mental health problems, to her painful early career as an ingenue among the wolves of Hollywood and her final years as a troubled star in search of some artistic, but mostly romantic, validation. It features a powerhouse performance by Cuban actor Ana de Armas as Monroe, a haunting background score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and visual sleights-of-hand by Dominik that deliver the occasional well-timed gut punch, such as in the scene where Norma sits before a vanity mirror, as her makeup man works on her face, desperately praying to Marilyn to “come” and not “abandon” her.

Yet, just like that book stuffed full of whispers and insinuations, Blonde ultimately sees Monroe herself as little more than a body. A beautiful body in a constant state of suffering, either due to abuse — inflicted by others and Monroe herself — or crippling grief, self-loathing and yearning. The varied states of nudity in which we see Norma/Marilyn are perhaps intended by the director to reinforce her extreme vulnerability in the cut-throat world of celebrity and power, especially in conjunction with her rhetorical question — “Am I meat to be delivered?” — when she’s being hustled towards a surreptitious rendezvous with the US president, John F Kennedy, but they end up being gratuitous and exploitative.

Troubling also are the film’s depictions of sexual assault, which have received considerable backlash but ironically, the sequence which most blurs the line between empathy for Monroe and exploitation of her tragedy via de Armas’s body is the one that is most overtly designed to win us over to the film’s view of itself as essentially sympathetic. This depicts the shooting of the infamous skirt-over-grate scene from The Seven Year Itch, with the camera zooming in from every angle as Monroe’s dress flies up around her in an over-three-minute long sequence. We see the faces of the men in the crowd around her, all whooping and whistling, a parody of lust in what could have been a powerful commentary on the objectification of women’s bodies.

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This particular sequence is also significant because it underlines how little interest the film has in depicting Monroe as a person with intelligence and agency, who consciously made certain choices to be seen as the “Aphrodite of the 20th century”, as Dominik describes her in an interview. We see Monroe here, staying put on the grate even after filming has stopped because she knows she’s a star giving her public what they want. “Isn’t it delicious?” she says — a line from the scene she has just shot, but also, perhaps, a reference to the adoration of her screaming fans. There’s a hint here — barely — of the woman who, when asked in an interview what she wears in bed, archly said, “Why, Chanel No. 5, of course!”. We see a hint, again, of her intelligence in an exchange with the playwright Arthur Miller (played by Adrien Brody) when she makes a seemingly throwaway observation about a character he has written. Her comment leads to an emotional breakthrough for Miller in the scene, but as directed by Dominik, it lands like the unsophisticated truth-telling of a child. Where, in all this, is the woman who once astutely observed, “Men do not see me. They just lay their eyes on me”; who used her popularity to break away from the exploitative studio system and stopped being a “Hollywood slave”; who promised the Mocambo nightclub in Los Angeles that if they got over their reluctance to hire a Black singer — Ella Fitzgerald — she would take a front table every night and ensure good press?

In an interview to BFI’s Sight and Sound magazine, Dominik described Blonde as a “rescue fantasy”. He said, “That’s the attraction to Marilyn, that feeling that we’re the only ones who understand. That we could have saved her somehow. And maybe the flipside of that is a punishment fantasy, or a sexual fantasy.” If the film’s depiction of Monroe as a sexualised, infantilised and exploited body is disappointing, perhaps Dominik’s choices as a filmmaker would make more sense when seen in light of these revealing statements.

First published on: 02-10-2022 at 12:42 IST
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