Ana De Armas is possessed by the vivacious spirit of Norma Jeane Baker in Andrew Dominik’s unrestrained and brutal biopic.
A beautiful blonde starlet visits her aging mother in a decrepit psychiatric ward, presenting her with articles and photos of the successful and scandalous life the actress leads outside those walls. But far removed from the abusive childhood that once bound them together, the mother doesn’t recognize the woman before her at all. To the rest of the world, though, this woman is nothing but these fragmented images, taking whatever shape or form is demanded of her before passing her on to the next suitor or project.
Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, documenting the whirlwind, tragic life of Norma Jeane Baker, or Marilyn Monroe, is the cinematic equivalent of its character’s shoebox full of press clippings, shifting between aspect ratios and color schemes, between impeccably recreated real-life events and disturbingly surreal fantasy sequences. Blonde tries to separate the woman from the persona, if such a Herculean task is even possible. While Dominik’s aims may be debated, Blonde remains a stunningly rendered depiction of the craven, depersonalizing nature of celebrity and how it robs those it infects of their agency and freedom.
Beginning with an assault by an unnamed studio executive, Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) sacrifices herself by adopting the Marilyn Monroe persona—which takes over Hollywood, much like the wildfire that led to her split from her abusive mother (Julianne Nicholson). Throughout, Marilyn attracts many suitors who go unnamed, save for their professions: the ex-athlete (Bobby Cannavale), the playwright (Adrien Brody), and the sons of stars (Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams). Playing off the ubiquity of Marilyn’s story, everyone in Blonde seems robbed of their own identity, reduced to the role they play for others. As such, many of the battles of Blonde focus on preserving what’s left of oneself in an industry that seems to eat people alive with dispassionate disregard and endless, ravenous hunger. Norma Jeane faces physical and psychological assault from those around her, whether it be by blackmail, coercion, sexual advances, or unexpected tragedy. Blonde’s depiction of Norma Jeane’s life is languidly paced, but is also the “avalanche of imagery” its director set out to make, operating with cruel patience that recognizes the weight that traumatic moments can carry even decades after they occur.
Norma Jeane stands tall in the face of such vicious, often misogynistic adversity. Though perpetually wracked with nerves, Norma Jeane isn’t shy about referencing Dostoyevsky or Chekhov when auditioning for a role that ends up being a little more than a waif onscreen. These aren’t mere name-drops, but reflect Norma Jeane’s own judicious analysis of whatever text she’s given. What’s more, she’s able to bring out passionate performances in her scene partners, even if they are uninterested producer’s assistants just reading sides off camera. Even they are instinctively repelled by her complexity, as if unable to primally reckon with Norma Jeane’s combination of intelligence and beauty. They are driven to reduce her to her visible attractiveness alone, a piece of meat to be traded and consumed both personally and professionally.
De Armas and Dominik go to great lengths to dramatize this reduction as graphically as possible, coupling coerced behind-the-scenes depravity with Monroe’s iconic image as a sex symbol to illustrate how Norma Jeane survived within the Hollywood system. This choice creates a much-needed demarcation and distancing between Norma Jeane and the persona she created in order to fulfill her lifelong search for acceptance and worth. Without any euphemism, these scenes are horrifying, echoing the best of David Cronenberg or David Lynch with a silver screen sheen. Norma Jeane’s attackers are often faceless, with a detailed focus on their suits, desks, and awards. Their status is used as a tool for violence and coercion. Their consequences are equally viscerally depicted, as in sequences much written about depicting abortion, blood-strewn sheets, and other terrifying hallucinations. Dominik immerses the viewer within the action, placing us within reach of specula, grabbing hands, fetuses, and giant-mouthed crowds, all of which come for Norma Jeane with equal ferocity and determination like an escaped zoo creature.
Over time, Norma Jeane learns to use her Marilyn persona as her own tool, notably depicted in negotiating a far better deal for herself in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. However, Norma Jeane’s control over her own persona frays as the public’s demand grows, until she is confronted with an insurmountable 50-foot tall marquee version of “herself.” Marilyn metastasizes within Norma Jeane’s psyche and public image until there is little left of the girl from the opening sequence. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, itself denoted as a work of fiction, one fittingly cannot tell what is explicitly real, dramatized, or hallucinated throughout Blonde. There is as much dedication to creating elaborate sequences of disturbing fantasy as there is to immaculately splicing Ana de Armas into Marilyn Monroe’s body of work. The world itself contorts between sets and airplanes until the films Marilyn’s forced to be in speed by in a shrieking blur, reduced to poses on subway grates or one-liners delivered by those around her.
While featuring immaculate cinematography and stunning performances, Blonde’s greatest and most terrifying success is in making Marilyn Monroe feel like a prison of flesh for Norma Jeane Baker. Through Marilyn and the powerful forces that sought to control her, Norma Jeane was endlessly violated by the public eye and private hands. Even Dominik’s film implicates itself in how it uses Marilyn until she cannot be used anymore; at the end of the film, both subject and camera drop like broken toys once their purpose is extinguished. Is Norma Jeane/Marilyn’s liberation at the end freedom, or execution? Much like Dominik’s obliterated boundaries between fantasy, reality, and carefully-honed public image, the blurred lines are for us to define, to our peril.
Blonde is in limited theatrical release courtesy of Netflix, with a theatrical debut on September 28th.