Blonde & Eternal Spring
By Marc Glassman
Andrew Dominik, director and writer based on the book by Joyce Carol Oates
Starring: Ana de Armas (Norma Jeane Mortenson/Marilyn Monroe), Lily Fisher (the young Norma Jeane), Adrien Brody (The playwright/Arthur Miller), Bobby Cannavale (Ex-athlete/Joe DiMaggio), Xavier Samuel (Charles “Cass” Chaplin, Jr.), Julianne Nicholson (Gladys Pearl Baker)
Why are we so obsessed with Marilyn Monroe? She was gorgeous, sexy and funny and could sing persuasively at times. But so could Jane Russell, her co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—though she was, as Marilyn says in Blonde, the new Andrew Dominik film about Monroe, “the brunette. I’m the blonde.”
Is our attraction caused by Marilyn’s phony blonde hair and genuinely tragic demise? But the equally beautiful Rita Hayworth died her hair red instead of blonde, and was one of the first people who publicly passed away after contracting Alzheimer’s. That’s tragic and significant, as was the fact that she was Latina but hid her origins during her Hollywood heyday. Hayworth was also married to famous people—Orson Welles and the Aga Khan–just like Marilyn’s Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. But no one is making films about Hayworth and Russell.
What is it about Marilyn? Joyce Carol Oates, whose extensive published oeuvre is replete with tragic stories, wrote Blonde as a long novel—over 700 pages—and has always insisted that the Marilyn story may have inspired her but that her book wasn’t intended to be a biography. Andrew Dominik obviously feels the same way about his film. Like Oates, Dominick is fascinated by the legend of the tragic blonde and wants to make something that is incited by her without being slavish to the facts.
Blonde is a rarity, an art film, which is attracting huge attention because of its subject. We may not know precisely why, but everyone is fascinated by Marilyn. Andrew Dominik’s film is not just gorgeously shot, but it evokes brilliantly the last burst of Hollywood glamour in the Fifties through elaborately conceived sequences in restaurants, hotels and shooting stages where the myth of Marilyn Monroe was created. Shot in black and white when it is effective and other times in colour, the tale of a sad soul split asunder between a soft spoken, poetic figure and a sexy superstar, is the drama played out in Blonde. It’s more cerebral than sensual and rarely amusing. But it is compulsively watchable as tragedies tend to be.
Ana de Armas is not only the star of Blonde, but she is also the reason why you’ll want to see it. Yes, she’s Cuban and is almost the same age Marilyn was when she died, but she’s wonderful in the film. De Armas gets everything right: the wide-open eyes, the pure sexuality, the breathy voice, the uninhibited gaze that marks Marilyn. It’s uncanny and so is she: one never doubts that this is the duo persona of Norma Jeane, the lonely girl, and Marilyn, the sexiest thing on the planet. Nor do we ever lose both the iconic power of Marilyn in the film and de Armas as she reveals herself as a superstar performer and burgeoning legend.
There’s a sequence in the film, when Norma Jeane, after her marriage with the playwright (Adrien Brody, excellent as Arthur Miller) turns sour, agrees to star in another major Hollywood production, Some Like It Hot. She sits in front of a double mirror and tries to evoke another presence. Suddenly, it arrives, like a figure from a horror film: Marilyn. Dominik, and probably Oates, see Norma Jeane, the sad girl with the crazy mother (effectively played by Julianne Nicholson) as being someone other than Marilyn. But that’s the central mystery of Blonde, one which isn’t tackled: how did Norma Jeane create Marilyn? And why was she so afraid of her?
Blonde tells the story of Norma Jeane/Marilyn through her encounters with men, who misunderstand her. They’re important figures: the producer “Z” (for Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck); the sons of stars “Chas” Chaplin, Jr. and Eddie Robinson, Jr.; the Ex-athlete (DiMaggio); the playwright (Arthur Miller) and the President (JFK). None truly love her though some would claim that they do. The problem, as the film establishes, is that no one can embrace a figure who doesn’t know herself: the dual persona of Norma Jeane and Marilyn.
Andrew Dominik has cast Blonde excellently. Bobby Cannavale is superb as DiMaggio: a hero (as Marilyn aptly calls him) who should understand Marilyn’s wrestling with stardom, he is overcome by his macho attitudes towards his wife’s unbridled exhibitionism as shown famously in the subway grate sequence with her dress blown open in The Seven Year Itch. His anger, mixed with passion, is manifest in Cannavale’s sequences with her.
Likewise Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller can never clearly grasp the naïve intellectualism of Norma Jeane; to him, she’s always going to be a figure that could appear in his next play or screenplay (or, in fact, both: The Misfits and After the Fall). Though Brody’s Miller appreciates Norma Jeane/Marilyn, he never understands her. He’s in love with the myth and perplexed by the reality.
In the end, Marilyn/Norma Jeane is abandoned to her fate. Mistreated by the President who wants sex with a symbol, not a woman, she mysteriously dies. Oates’ book has theories about what happened but Dominik doesn’t go there. In any case, her time as an icon was gone. Marilyn was about to disappear as a star. Would Norma Jeane have survived?
Blonde is a wonderfully made film but its tragic tone and extreme length (166 minutes) may limit its appeal. Kudos to Netflix for supporting it even through an NC-17 rating.
Jason Loftus, director and producer
Canada’s nomination for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film is Eternal Spring, a truly unique work, highly deserving of this and all of the accolades it’s been receiving. Normally, I get annoyed when Canada claims a film about another country as our own, but this is one which we should treasure not only because of its artistry but also its content. It’s a story about human rights violations in China centred on the persecution of believers in Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that incorporates Buddhism and Taoism, emphasizing compassion while using qijong, or slow movement martial arts methods, on a daily basis. As such, it’s something we should all be proud to support.
What makes Eternal Spring Canadian are its creators, producer/director Jason Loftus, a Peabody Award winner, who assembled a team including editor David Schmidt to realize a vision created by the long-time Toronto resident artist Daxiong. Though the story is set in Changchun, China, the spiritual home of Falun Gong, the innovative film production is very much a project made in Canada. Inspired by Daxiong’s personal story of how the Falun Gong, already banned in China, launched a surprise takeover of the TV stations in Changchun one evening in 2002, Loftus uses a thriller (or heist) structure to tell the story of people so dedicated to a spiritual practice that they were willing to risk everything in order to persuade people about the rightness of their cause.
Eternal Spring is an animated documentary, a hybrid form that is just beginning to be used in feature films. Flee and Waltz with Bashir are probably the two most famous films that have used this genre so far but it’s likely to grow in popularity as digital technology blurs the lines between formats. Like the others, Eternal Spring is well told while using a sophisticated narrative and genre-bending technique.
We follow Daxiong, a multi-award-winning graphic artist, as he talks to “Mr. White,” who spent time in prison after the Changchun takeover but was luckily released. The two tell the fascinating but ultimately tragic tale of a group of idealists led by Liang and backed up the powerful “Big Truck,” who put their lives on the line to try to persuade the citizens of Changchun that Falun Gong was a spiritual practice and shouldn’t be banned by the Chinese government. The repression that follows Liang’s defiance by broadcasting a pro-Falun Gong message on air is brutal and swift: Eternal Spring shows how harsh “justice” can be in modern day China.
What’s astonishing about Eternal Spring beyond its arresting and devastating content, is the apparently casual way that Loftus and company have created a film that uses documentary elements—Daxiong’s present day story—with animation, which evokes the exciting Falun Gong events in 2002 China. We move back and forth from live action to animation and from past to present seamlessly throughout the film. From docs to animation and back—Eternal Spring shows that it’s all storytelling.
While it’s clear in the film, the human rights issue backing Eternal Spring must be emphasized. Falun Gong as a movement was not in opposition to the government. Their “crime” and the reason for the governmental oppression was that they had become way too popular espousing traditional faith practices in a society that is supposed to atheist and progressive. Loftus has pointed out that the story of the Falun Gong has been repeated in China with the Uyghur Muslims and that anger against Asians is on the rise has been on the rise since COVID.
Will Eternal Spring win the Oscar? I would love it if it made the short list so that many influential people could see this extraordinary film. A winner? Eternal Spring is already one.