Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) immersive and surreal adaption of Joyce Carol Oates’ imaginative novel of the same name is a lot to take in. The film digs deep into the myth of Marilyn Monroe, resulting in an unrelenting depiction of a fragile woman at the mercy of the Hollywood system.
Blonde begins before the fame, with young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) and her unstable mother Gladys Pearl Baker (Julianne Nicholson). On her birthday, Gladys shows her daughter a photo of a generically handsome man in a fedora and claims this is the girl’s father. But no one is allowed to say his name because he’s a big name in the industry. After Gladys becomes dangerously unwell, she’s institutionalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Norma goes from being in the care of a friendly neighbor to being dropped off at an orphanage.
We skip ahead to adulthood when Norma Jeane is now Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas), a blonde bombshell on the rise with a genuine interest in acting that no one takes seriously. But in Hollywood, it’s only her voluptuous figure and naïveté that make her worthy of the big screen. The film is tenacious when it comes to showing the multitude of degradations and abuse Norma/Marilyn endured throughout her life, starting with the studio exec who sexually assaults her in their first meeting.
Marilyn’s life is defined by the string of toxic relationships and indignities she experienced, the first of which is being subjected to her mother’s mental instability and abuse. Her lifetime of trauma keeps her in a childlike state, an unwanted orphan desperately looking for her father and settling for someone she can call “Daddy.” She’s repeatedly told to be a “good girl” in various situations: from walking into an orphanage to fellating John F. Kennedy, referred to as “the President” (Caspar Phillipson).
As in Oates’ novel, Norma/Marilyn is in a throuple with two descendants of Hollywood actors — Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). The love triangle of daddy issues is sensual, surprising, and complete fiction. We also see interpretations of her real relationships like her marriage to the jealous and abusive Joe DiMaggio, nicknamed “the Ex-Athlete” (Bobby Cannavale), and the more tender union with Arthur Miller, aka “the Playwright” (Adrien Brody).
Like every sex symbol after her, Marilyn Monroe was praised and expected to be the ultimate male fantasy and then was punished for it. She’s treated like meat, literally being delivered to men and just as easily discarded. Her body isn’t her own, as depicted in the truly nightmarish coerced abortion scene.
The film’s strongest element is Ana de Armas, who was clearly very committed to the mentally and physically demanding role. Besides being absolutely stunning, the Cuban-Spanish actress perfectly captures the essence of the pop culture icon, completely nailing her breathy voice and mannerisms. It’s mesmerizing (and a bit unsettling) when she transforms from a weeping Norma Jeane to the trademark glee of Marilyn Monroe in a single scene. This role required her to show a lot of vulnerability (so much crying) and expose herself literally and metaphorically. I just hope de Armas had some therapy afterward.
Norma Jeane stays trapped inside the constructed and hyper-sexualized persona of Marilyn Monroe, and she makes many sacrifices she makes to maintain the glamorous facade. She admits, almost painfully, “Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.” As much as she tries, separating the two became nearly impossible. De Armas told Queue, “There are moments when we are inside of her body and mind, and this will allow the audience to experience what it was like to be Norma and Marilyn at the same time.”
Marilyn’s POV is a jarring one. Cameras go off like guns or bombs. The suffocating crowds are largely made up of shouting men reaching out for her, which makes for a terrifying image, a literal attack of the male gaze. The clamoring is rather reminiscent of Repulsion. It gets into psychological horror territory in the vein of Black Swan or Rosemary’s Baby. At times the camera moves as if it’’ documenting a crime scene, made all the eerier with the melancholic, almost like Twin Peaks, ethereal music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story).
Blonde is beautifully crafted and avant-garde, almost Lynchian. With arbitrary shifts in aspect ratios, transitions from vivid color to black-and-white, and chaotic camera movements, Director of Photography Chayse Irvin (BlacKkKlansman) keeps us disoriented. Norma/Marilyn’s reality is distorted, often blurry and spinning. Some of the most surreal moments are shots recreated from actual photos.
Blonde was bound to be a polarizing film. It’s not a biopic, but a gorgeous and terrifying abstract nightmare that lets you know right away this experience will be uncomfortable and unpleasant at times. Though it’s entirely too long and the frustratingly lengthy pauses make the nearly three-hour runtime seem even longer, Ana de Armas’ mind-blowing performance and the remarkable cinematography make the intense sensory experience worthwhile.
Blonde had its World Premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. The film releases globally on September 28 on Netflix.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.