“In the movies, they chop you all to bits,” Ana de Armas’s Marilyn Monroe says about halfway through Blonde. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but you’re not the one to put it together.” She’s supposedly talking about the way all movies are put together, but of course, it’s also a thinly veiled reference to the way this particular movie has been put together. Or rather, not put together: Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is, in effect, a jigsaw puzzle about Norma Jeane Mortenson and Marilyn Monroe that has been left purposefully incomplete, seen in captivating and terrifying fragments. And it’s chopped her to bits, almost literally. From the flashbulbs and klieg lights and cables surrounding Marilyn that open the film to the endless cruelties enacted upon her body and soul, it’s a movie about the creation and fragmentation of identity. And it is brutal, its lush surfaces and old Hollywood recreations almost always giving way to unspeakable horrors.
It’s also, to be clear, fiction. Blonde is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel, which takes many, many liberties with the lives of Marilyn and others. The film doesn’t purport to be factual, and besides, it’s such a stylized journey through this character’s life that it’d be hard to come up with any biographical timeline from it. (And if one did, it’d likely be incorrect.) Those looking for a biopic about Marilyn Monroe are sure to be disappointed, confused, and/or outraged, which may explain why Netflix has been so cautious about anybody seeing it up until its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Regardless, the picture will surely fuel endless rounds of soul-pulverizing debates. In fact, it’s kind of designed to, loaded as it is with provocations.
Blonde begins with Norma Jeane as a young girl being told by her emotionally fragile, alcoholic single mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson, in an unforgettable performance) that her real father was a very important man with a very important name. A photo of him, a dashing figure with hat and mustache, hangs above Gladys’s bed. Armed simply with the clue that her father is a big shot who lives in the Hollywood hills, Norma Jeane will spend the remainder of her days looking for this man, both in the real world and through her relationships with men, many of whom she calls “daddy.”
Dominik has structured the film largely around impeccable recreations of images from Marilyn’s career, but each recreation then gives way to something terrifying. Blonde is filled with beautiful sequences followed by images that cause actual pain to watch. The famous subway-grate sequence from The Seven Year Itch effectively becomes an extended, slow-motion public peep show, as an endless sea of photographers and onlookers gawk at her. The song “Bye, Bye Baby” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes becomes a reference to the abortion she reluctantly has in order to do the picture (and also because she fears her mother’s madness might be genetic). Norma Jeane seeks love and acceptance through the image of Marilyn, which then gives the public access to the most intimate corners of her life. The film claims that access, too. It even goes … into her cervix to show the aforementioned abortion. Like I said, the movie hurts.
The three central romantic relationships here — a delirious, extended threesome with gorgeous Hollywood scions Charles Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams); a physically abusive marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale); an emotionally codependent marriage to Arthur Miller (a wonderfully brooding Adrien Brody) — all speak to her ongoing efforts to define herself. The sons of movie stars may feel the oppressive pressure of having famous fathers, but to Norma Jeane, they at least know exactly who they are. DiMaggio has used baseball to create a character in a way similar to Marilyn. (“I’m one of the winners of the American lottery,” he declares.) And Miller is, in his own way, also searching: He’s trying to find a certain Magda that he loved in his childhood; he finds her in Marilyn, whom he calls “my Magda,” while she finds yet another version of “daddy” in him. And these men all claim different kinds of ownership over her. The juniors explore her sexually. DiMaggio beats her mercilessly. Miller takes her words and puts them into his plays without telling her.
Whether in marriage or in other affairs, Norma Jeane rarely has any agency. The ground never feels safe under her feet. She is presented for the constant salivation of men, their enormous eyes leering and surreally engorged mouths gaping. And those are just the bystanders. When she’s introduced to studio head “Mr. Z” (presumably, Daryl Zanuck), he immediately bends her over and rapes her; I don’t think he even bothers to say hello. Later, she will be ferried into John F. Kennedy’s hotel room by two Secret Service agents, who at one point actually lift her a few inches off the floor as they deliver her (in her words, like “a piece of meat”) to the president, who then makes her fellate him (in close-up) while he watches coverage of nuclear missiles on TV and listens to a man (J. Edgar Hoover, one assumes) berate him over the phone for allegations of sexual impropriety. Afterward, Marilyn is carried out again, groggy and wounded, the camera drifting and spinning around her. At times, the movie feels like a slaughterhouse seen from the animal’s point of view.
There’s something repetitive about all this, to be sure, but Blonde is never tedious or boring. Dominik’s visual and sonic imagination work overtime to turn each sequence into an expressionistic and expressive journey, gorgeously shot dream-factory fantasies slipping into labyrinthine horrors. (The drifting, gently wailing score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis helps, too.) But also, Ana de Armas wins us over. Her performance is not quite what one might expect. She’s certainly committed fully to a part that requires intense physicality, tons of nudity, and tears. And she expertly mimics Monroe’s half-breathless style of speaking. But she still has traces of her accent, which the film doesn’t hide. That gives the whole endeavor a somewhat performative quality … which, of course, is the point of the movie. Ana de Armas doesn’t inhabit the role of Marilyn Monroe. Rather, the role of Marilyn Monroe inhabits Ana de Armas — like a tortured, possibly malevolent spirit.
Blonde is beautiful, mesmerizing, and, at times, deeply moving. But it’s also alienating — again, by design — constantly turning the camera on the viewer, sometimes with Marilyn directly addressing it. That’s going to be a tough sell, especially for a film that’s so nonlinear and elliptical. (The two semi-biopics I was reminded of were Michael Mann’s Ali and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson, both challenging meditations on the brutal cost of self-actualization.) But somewhere at the movie’s core, for all the ghastly horrors it holds, is a deeply relatable idea. Norma Jeane’s search for a nonexistent father, and the various substitutes she finds along the way, winds and winds and winds (and winds and winds) until it becomes something far more cosmic about the search for belonging in the maze-like heartbreak of this world. For those of us who connect with that idea, the film will do more than hurt us — it will destroy us.
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