There are pieces of Marilyn Monroe everywhere: In tributes, parodies and homage; in bits of her movies, sliced into iconic clips rendering them instantly recognizable even to those who haven’t actually watched them; in mournful recollections of stars snuffed out too soon. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but you’re not the one to put it together,” says the version of Marilyn played by Ana de Armas in Blonde. Not every puzzle piece or image in the Monroe kaleidoscope makes it into Andrew Dominik’s film, which is neither traditional rise-and-fall biopic nor playful I’m Not There-style biographical deconstruction. But this adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel (not biography) is fragmented and visually rich enough to convey what Dominik and Oates seem to be after: How the collective ownership an audience feels over its beloved icons has unseemly origins, and often destructive endings.
We see glimpses of Monroe as a thoughtful, well-read young woman; a passionate actress; an optimistic survivor—and for all these reasons and more, people dismiss her, or attempt to take possession of her. After a harrowing childhood sequence ending with the institutionalization of her mother (Julianne Nicholson), Blonde jumps to the early 1950s, with de Armas playing the former Norma Jeane Baker, now a model and up-and-coming actress—which means being treated, in her words, as “meat.” De Armas’ eyes have a pleading desire, and the edge of her accent peeks through her imitation of Monroe’s voice—perfectly appropriate, even lovely, for a figure who has inspired so many broad impressions. This version of Marilyn regards her stage name as a creation separate from her genuine self, and is on a perpetual search for the love that will fill the dual void left by her abusive mother and father she’s never known. Increasingly, she finds that the adulation felt by millions for Marilyn Monroe doesn’t necessarily count for Norma Jeane.
To an extent, Blonde is loosely structured around the various relationships on which Marilyn pins her hopes: A blissful-looking throuple with Cass (Xavier Samuels) and Eddy (Evan Williams), both the sons of past Hollywood icons and untenable for publicity reasons; a quasi-traditional marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who talks to her as if conducting a job interview, and later reveals a violent, abusive temper; and a gentler, more artistically minded union with playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), which might just be too little, too late.
These periods aren’t rigidly segmented; Blonde drifts away from its supporting characters, withholding clear exit moments. The supporting performances are uniformly effective while intentionally lacking purchase; De Armas is the only real constant as Dominik keeps shifting the movie around her, with the magnum-opus fussiness of constantly-switching aspect ratios and color schemes. He doesn’t just toggle between color and black-and-white, but different styles of both: As Marilyn becomes more famous, some of the black-and-white scenes use bright, shallow lighting, making Marilyn and the people around her look vivid, while the backgrounds are blackly indistinct, like old-fashioned paparazzi shots, yanking Marilyn out of whatever environment she occupies.
Monroe herself inhabited noirish black-and-white, “lurid” Technicolor (in Niagara, the trailer for which a three-way sex scene dissolves into) and a romantic comedy that became one of the earliest ultra-widescreen CinemaScope releases. She did so all in just a few years, so the stylistic antsiness makes some sense. Though some of Dominik’s images have the Malickian gaze he brought to another bit of American myth-busting in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Blonde is louder—flashbulbs go off like gunshots, that sort of thing. This nose-punch approach to subtlety that worked so well in Dominik’s nasty crime picture Killing Them Softly doesn’t always play so gracefully here, in part because it’s necessarily missing that movie’s gallows humor. Yet every time Blonde threatens to go too far, working itself up into some kind of post-millennial Oliver Stone fugue, a dazzling expressionistic flourish will send it back around the horn, sound if not exactly safe. An abortion sequence lingers uncomfortably in its aggressive bad taste—there are moments that could be something out of a pro-life nightmare—until Marilyn leaps up from the operating table and runs through empty hospital halls, alight with flames, flashing back to a pivotal childhood incident where Norma Jeane’s mother nearly drove her daughter into a nearby forest fire. The abortion proceeds while the movie itself leaps away. From its very first sequence, Blonde keeps running into the fire, hoping to pass through it.
Blonde can be a tough sit, for the 166-minute monotony of its images of abuse and misery almost as much as the misery itself. At the same time, its explosion of visual ideas never quite wears out its welcome. Dominik has created his own dark-flipside version of the Norma Jeane/Marilyn bifurcation, perhaps almost too neatly: The movie is both a daring and empathetic deconstruction of Monroe iconography anchored by a beautiful performance from de Armas, as well as a miserabilist wallow in exploitation. Like its fictionalized subject, the lines between the two are sad, blurry and spellbinding.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams
Release Date: September 16, 2022 (Netflix)
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.