No screening at Venice this year had been the subject of more fevered speculation than Andrew Dominik’s experimental Marilyn Monroe biopic. Back in January, this decade-in-the-making adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel had been certified NC-17 by America’s Motion Picture Association – a rating reserved for the irredeemably graphic and ghoulish.
The casting of the Cuban-American actress Ana de Armas had raised some eyebrows, particularly when the trailer confirmed she would be using her natural accent. And punchy talk from Dominik in interviews – “if the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the f---ing audience’s problem,” he told a reporter – seemed only to confirm that festival-goers were in for a pummelling. So when rumours spread on the Lido earlier this month that the film contained not one but two shots in which the camera peers directly out of Monroe’s birth canal, no one was especially taken aback.
Just how unsparing is it? Well, the birth canal talk turned out to be accurate. But Dominik, the Australian director of Killing them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James, is no idle provocateur, and the shots in question – during two gruelling abortion scenes – feed into the film’s central idea of Monroe as a vessel to be filled up or scraped out as her audience demanded.
Blonde isn’t an Elvis, or even a Spencer – Pablo Larraín’s proudly apocryphal Diana drama, which caused a similar stir on the Lido last year. Perhaps it’s closest in form to I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s 2007 Bob Dylan film, which offered six vying perspectives on its famously elusive subject. Blonde takes a similar approach, smashing Monroe’s life story into fragments, each one cold and sparkling, and jagged enough to draw blood.
The young Norma Jeane is played by 12-year-old Lily Fisher, who Dominik directs like a silent-era child star; she cries with the heart-rending directness of Jackie Coogan in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Norma’s unstable mother (a spiky Julianne Nicholson) spins a handsome-prince fantasy about the girl’s absent father: the man was a matinee idol, she claims, and hangs a picture of a suave, shadowy man above her daughter’s spartan bed.
Monroe’s first, pre-fame marriage is glossed over entirely: when the film introduces de Armas, she is already a successful pin-up model being preyed on by the Hollywood establishment. An interview with a studio head ends in hurried, wordless rape. Observers at an audition, shot in nerve-wracking, Bergmanesque close-up, mutter that her tearful performance was like “watching a mental patient”.
Some will surely take issue with the film’s depiction of Monroe as powerless and relentlessly exploited. Marilyn, here, is less a carefully constructed screen persona than a dissociative alter ego. At a desperate moment she essentially prays to her reflection for strength, while a make-up artist busily perfecting her face coos “She’s coming… she’s almost here.” But de Armas captures the tension between Monroe’s flawless surface and fragmenting inner self with extraordinary psychological precision and real depth of feeling. Not only does she look the part, she understands that the part is a dismantling of the look. (Also, within minutes, the accent becomes a non-issue.)
Dominik uses the vast cache of posed and candid photographs of Monroe as inspirations for individual scenes: by bringing them to life, it’s as if he is releasing those fetishised images back into the wild. (Adrien Brody – terrific as Arthur Miller – looks as if he could have walked out of these.)
Reconstructions of classic film moments feature too, but never for nostalgic pleasure. During the Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend sequence from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we see Marilyn looking at herself on the screen as if she’s a stranger, while the shooting of a scene from of Some Like It Hot – de Armas is cut into the original footage alongside Tony Curtis – becomes a moment for her to darkly reflect on a recent pregnancy loss. Naturally the skirt-flaring moment on the set of The Seven Year Itch also appears, but Dominik shows the dress slowly and sinisterly mushrooming up and outwards over and over, like a looping clip of an atomic test.
Blonde is severe and serious-minded almost to a fault: you rather wonder how many viewers at home will soldier on to the end when it lands on Netflix after its limited theatrical release. In the cinema, though, it swallows you up like an uneasy dream, at once all too familiar and pricklingly unreal.
18 cert, 165 min. In cinemas now, and on Netflix from September 28