I’d like to clarify two things before I dive into the many things there are to say about Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s new film about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Firstly, for my part, I am not overly familiar with Monroe’s biography. I have seen some of her films and have learned about her marriages and affairs through cultural osmosis.
Secondly, and more importantly, Blonde is based on a novel – the book of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates – not a biography; Oates has emphasized that the book is a piece of fiction.
And with his adaptation of Blonde, Dominik has chosen to re-emphasize that with almost every scene change. The film frequently alternates between stark, glossy black and white and warm, grainy color. Beyond that, the film constantly shifts its aspect ratio between 4:3, ultra-wide, and the current standard 16:9.
It’s an initially jarring and alienating choice that makes it difficult to connect with any of the content in this everchanging form, but eventually, a rhythm sets in, and we can connect with the constant through all of these changes: Norma Jean. And yet, the form always reminds us that this story is artificial and that as close as we may feel to Norma, there is no real Norma, not that anyone can know.
That unknowability seems to plague Norma as well. Norma Jean Baker (Ana de Armas) becomes Marilyn Monroe or channels Marilyn Monroe when she needs to act. But there is a distance between these two personae. Norma refers to Marilyn as a distinct person with whom she has a complicated relationship and sometimes even seems to hate.
What’s more interesting is Dominik’s choice to place de Armas’s face onto Marilyn’s in several of her films. We see de Armas with George Sanders in All About Eve, singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and with Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. It’s a strange trick that contributes to the purposeful artifice of the film but also raises questions. Given that Norma feels such a separation from Marilyn, why Dominik does not show the unaltered pieces of the real Marilyn in these clips within Blonde is a mystery.
Another somewhat mysterious aspect of the film is the connective tissue between some of its disparate moments in time. Blonde opens in the 1930s, and we see Norma’s mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) fall prey to an unnamed mental illness, leaving her daughter in the care of neighbors who in turn deliver her to an orphanage. It then jumps ahead to the early 1950s, as Marilyn’s career is developing, and Norma begins a polyamorous relationship with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson.
We’re then whisked to the mid-50s when her career has exploded, and she marries an abusive ex-baseball player (Bobby Cannavale), who goes unnamed in the film. Then again, a few years after her divorce from the ex-athlete, we see her develop a romance with Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). And finally, in the early 1960s, she is sexually involved with the President and has succumbed to addiction.
Each of these segments are well defined, as de Armas’s performance anchors the film. But there is a lack of information about how we move from time to time. Sometimes there is even a lack of information within the moments we witness, as with the unnamed athlete. This lack of narrative clarity creates a strange sense that those who know the history of Marilyn Monroe’s life may be getting more from the film while once again emphasizing that the historical record is not of interest here. Instead, what is of interest is Norma, or at the very least, putting the audience in her emotional and psychological place.
A Picture of Cruelty
While much of Blonde is stunning to look at, it’s not always a pretty picture. From the start, we see Norma as a child abused by her mother, and when we see her as an adult, the first thing we see is her being raped by a studio head.
But that’s only the first twenty or so minutes of this nearly three-hour film, which goes on to depict domestic violence, forced abortions, and Marilyn’s body thrown about like, in her words, “a piece of meat.” The film vacillates between portraying these moments of horror as viscerally disturbing and matter-of-fact, but their impact on Norma is never downplayed.
The film’s much-discussed NC-17 rating is likely due to three sequences, two of which are the same. On two occasions in the film, we see a speculum enter and open inside Norma’s vagina as she is prepared for abortions. And in perhaps the most disturbing moment, the camera tracks the upper half of her face as she is forced to perform fellatio. Unlikely to have played a role in the rating, but similarly impactful is a point-of-view shot from inside a toilet as Norma vomits onto the camera.
These are indelible images. While some may argue these images contribute to the ongoing exploitation of a dead woman, their effect in the film is anything but titillating. They are violations depicted as violations to disgust and, as Dominik has acknowledged, offend viewers into a reaction, but one that only ever places us in solidarity with Norma.
While the start of Blonde certainly raises alarms that the film will be nothing but an artfully depicted series of abuses, Dominik and de Armas are eventually able to draw us in. De Armas’s powerful central performance grounds the artifice of the film. It allows us to see the human being experiencing the abuses of the world. We may take issue with the fact that so much of the film revolves around Norma’s search for her father and her desire for children as reductive, but the film is never dismissive or judgmental of her.
Blonde is a purposefully artificial and undeniably cruel film. But all of its artifice and cruelty are ultimately in the name of empathy for a woman none of us will ever really know, but all of us can empathize with, whether her story is fictional or not.
Blonde debuts on Netflix on September 28th.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.
He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.