Before going in, it’s important to know that Blonde is a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life, based on the 2000 historical fiction novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. In a press release, director Andrew Dominik, who also adapted the book for the screen, said, “[Oates] put the reader inside the experience of being someone like Marilyn, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the film as well.” Blonde explores Marilyn’s inner world by demonstrating how childhood trauma affects us in adulthood.
Though continuous debates online about “letting the dead rest” push on, it is impossible to deny that we remain fascinated with the gorgeous, enigmatic woman we knew as Marilyn Monroe, even 60 years after her untimely death. Dominik said, “[Oates] wrote a book that essentially dramatized how she felt about Marilyn Monroe. I feel fiction is how we make meaning in life. We tell ourselves a story about what happened.” While the mystery surrounding Marilyn is part of the allure, we cannot help but assign narratives to what we know. “She’s the most visible woman in the world,” Dominik said, “but she’s completely unseen.” Blonde finally attempts to see Marilyn, to imagine what life might have been like for her under the surface.
Blonde begins with Norma Jeane — Marilyn’s birth name — as a child (Lily Fisher). Her mentally ill mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), has a birthday surprise for her — a portrait of a man she says is Norma Jeane’s father. “His name is a beautiful name. An important name. But it’s a name I can’t utter,” Gladys says, because he’s an “industry titan” who had wished the child would not be born. Gladys soon has a psychotic break where she attempts to drown Norma Jeane, blaming her for being why her lover abandoned her. Gladys is put into a psychiatric hospital, and Norma Jeane becomes an orphan with two living parents.
At its core, Blonde tells the story of an unwanted child who spends her entire life trying to feel wanted and worthy of love. As an adult, Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) constantly searches for partners who can fulfil the protective, warm, and loving role of the father she never had — a deep wound that haunts her until her death. Marilyn’s own lyrics, from the 1948 film Ladies of the Chorus, soundtrack key moments: “Every baby needs a da-da-daddy, could my da-daddy be you?”
Dominik’s film explores the many darker themes of Marilyn’s life, depicting domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape, and suicidal ideation. Norma Jeane’s agent, Mr. Shinn (Dan Butler), objectifies and speaks down to her. “Are you on painkillers? Is it your period?” he asks dismissively when she attempts to share something personal, and Mr. Z (David Warshofsky), a movie executive, rapes her before offering her a role. Blonde also touches upon Norma Jeane’s emotionally and physically abusive marriages to the jealous “Ex-Athlete,” aka Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and the patronizing “Playwright,” aka Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). There’s also an uncomfortable scene with “The President,” aka John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), who uses Marilyn for pleasure.
Blonde is not provocative, but it is evocative. Its unsettling sequences are designed to discomfort the viewer, but they are respectful, which is to say they are not overly sexualized or gratuitous. The depictions of abuse remain effective and powerful, despite largely happening off-screen. The film aims to criticize the male fantasy rather than being part of it, which it does by placing us inside the experience of Norma Jeane and her Marilyn Monroe alter ego. We get her point of view of having to partake in the sex symbol role others assign to her.
During scenes of a sexual and abusive nature, the camera looks down at Norma Jeane to show her vulnerability and powerlessness. At times, she is forced into oral and penetrative sex, where the camera is mainly focused on her face and expression as she complies with her objectification and assault. Sometimes this is accompanied by dissociative thoughts, and these are combined to show that Norma Jeane is detached from her body. However, when she engages in a threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), the camera angles and movements are much different as they capture her body, highlighting that she is much more present and engaged.
Blonde meticulously recreates the famous imagery of Marilyn Monroe’s life, which Dominik felt was necessary. “She’s one the most photographed women in the world,” he said. “If you know about Marilyn’s life, you’re looking at this movie, and you’re seeing images that you know, but the meaning of them is different according to the internal drama she’s projecting outwards.” Dominik achieves this well by allowing de Armas to recreate memorable scenes from Marilyn’s filmography and life and situating us inside the internal suffering of Norma Jeane. For example, the film shows Norma Jeane adding her mother’s nervous mannerisms into her role as the mentally disturbed Nell in the 1952 film Don’t Bother to Knock. What’s more, de Armas’ rendition of Marilyn doesn’t feel like an imitation or a caricature but rather a tribute to Marilyn’s likeness. Her performance feels personal and serves as an invitation to the quiet troubled world of Norma Jeane rather than the glamorous, blonde bombshell known as Marilyn Monroe.
Dominik thought of Marilyn as an incredibly powerful person. “You’re talking about an unloved child from an orphanage transforming herself into the most visible woman in the world,” he said. “She really became that, but she was also self-destructive.” As Norma Jeane’s life became heavy with trauma, she turned to abusing pills to help her cope with anxiety and depression, in addition to erratic mood swings. Blonde seeks to create an emotional bond between Norma Jeane and the viewer as “it explores [her] relationship with herself and this other thing, ‘Marilyn,’ which is both her armour and the thing threatening to consume her.” During one scene, make-up artist Whitey (Toby Huss) promises a distraught and tearful Norma Jeane that he will “conjure Marilyn within the hour.” The scene cuts to her laid still on a bed, as though she is a corpse being made up for an open-casket funeral, but instead, they are bringing Marilyn to life from the decaying Norma Jeane, who is weighed down by the loss of another child — her three failed pregnancies a source of great sorrow and a strong theme throughout the film. “Please come,” Norma Jeane pleads to her alter ego. “Don’t abandon me.”
With inventive and lively filmmaking, Dominik avoids following a traditional linear narrative and instead creates a story through a series of dreamy and surreal vignettes that explore some of the most troubling moments from Norma Jeane’s life. While it succeeds in creating a lot of emotional and striking imagery, the film often feels empty due to its disjointed vignette format. The film also changes aspect ratio, flips between colour and black-and-white, uses out-of-focus shots, adds sporadic narration, and even uses occasional archive footage to further blur the lines between fiction and reality. At 166 minutes, Blonde surprisingly doesn’t feel too long, but some sequences overstay their welcome, which is particularly felt in the last half hour.
Rather than a biopic, Blonde is a fictitious emotional experience that draws from half-truths, as it merges pre-existing knowledge with fiction in ways many will find exploitative. People will understandably find Blonde divisive, as it’s uniquely structured and explores a tough subject that pertains to a real person. It’s a sombre story that is often cruel and hard to watch but evokes much-needed discussion around childhood trauma and the exploitative nature of Hollywood. Though many will see Norma Jeane as nothing but a victim, the film doesn’t need to focus on the flip side for us to know that she was so much more than that. She was a beautiful, intelligent, flirtatious, and hypersensitive woman who was desperate to be loved — something many victims of abuse can relate to. The best thing about Norma Jeane isn’t the Marilyn Monroe armour she used to hide behind; it’s the humanity and complexity of who she was at her core — a woman who should have been understood and accepted for who she was.
Blonde is released on September 23 in cinemas and on September 28 on Netflix.
by Toni Stanger