If your stance is, rightly, that Marilyn Monroe was a kind of genius, an actress for whom the status of sex symbol comes with an asterisk, because she was not helplessly beholden to her iconic image — not merely a slave to the culture’s open-flied erotic hunger, not simply the fatuous, buxom blonde many mistook her to be, but rather an extremely savvy engineer of her own persona, a witty, whip-smart, and self-aware talent for whom the culture’s low expectations proved an opportune plaything instead of a hard limit — if it’s your belief that this is the truth of Marilyn Monroe’s appeal and the essence of her timelessness, then Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, starring Ana de Armas as Monroe, may not be the movie for you. To start, this isn’t so much a movie about Marilyn Monroe. It instead aspires to be a movie about Norma Jean: the woman behind that persona, the troubled victim of abandonment and abuse for whom the persona “Marilyn Monroe” is like a prison, empowered to hold her captive and enable further abuse. In this frame, “Marilyn Monroe” is a source of devastating harm, even as the broken-down Norma Jean learns to lean on that identity, going so far as to pray for Marilyn to emerge when she needs her, to protect Norma Jean from everyone and everything else. Blonde isn’t blind to that woman’s talent. But it isn’t really about her talent. Few depictions are.
This, instead, is a movie about her suffering. Not a new subject. But Dominik — whose artful 2007 Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford abandoned outlaw-chasing shoot-’em-up theatrics to instead tell a story about a delusional celebrity chaser — can be expected to explore the familiar mythologizing of Marilyn and Norma Jean in his own prismatic, drawn-out, speculative way. And so he does. Blonde broadly traces Monroe’s life from girlhood (eight years old) to her death, maneuvering through romances, film roles, heartbreaking encounters with her parents, and violent breakdowns along the way. The movie is awash in tears. The opening stretch alone — modeling the pattern of flashbacks and flash-forwards, thematic rhymes, and impressionistic associations that will define the entire movie from start to finish — proves a useful primer on what’s to come. Marilyn Monroe: crying in childhood after her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who’s just shown the young girl a picture of her biological father for the first time, tries to drown her in the bathtub — a crime for which both women are punished, Gladys by being sent to an institution, young Marilyn by being ferried off to an orphanage. Marilyn Monroe: crying while being raped in the office of the executive “Mr. Z” (presumably studio titan Darryl F. Zanuck, famed president of Twentieth Century Fox) during what she believed would be an audition, and for which her reward is a small but career-boosting role in Joseph Mankiewcz’s All About Eve. Marilyn: crying while performing a scene in an acting class, when a full-bodied flash flood of terror and grief escapes her actorly control and overcomes her; Monroe, still tearful afterward, telling the inquisitive instructor that she didn’t tap into that meltdown by “thinking,” that the feelings being flushed out of her must have been a memory.
It’s this idea — that Monroe’s pain is primal, internal, completely beyond thought — that Blonde seems especially keen to explore, maybe because of the questions that naturally arise about the source of all of that pain, the traumas that can still reduce the adult Marilyn to such a childlike, terrified, animalistic state. Blonde and its flaws are already being diagnosed with a handful of compatible but unflattering descriptors (pretentious, misogynistic, masochistic, brutal). More than any of that, this movie is intensely psychoanalytic. From first to last, Blonde tries to draw linear pathways from its heroine’s behavior (and by association the mask-like, glamorous persona she creates to obscure that behavior) to her experiences, like some cursed psychological map. Evidence of her storied mood disorders, which she may have inherited from her mother, are dramatized here as the consequences of the rest of our actions. Paradoxically, the movie’s associative, nearly nonlinear structure, which toggles between multiple aspect ratios and visual styles as it rushes through select, symbolic incidents in Monroe’s life, allows it to straighten out the knottier emotional throughlines. Echoes abound. An audition for a role about a woman harming a child brings to mind Marilyn’s own mother and informs her take on the scene. An offhand remark about feeling like a piece of meat rhymes with her later being carried — literally lifted off of the ground and served up like a hot dish — into the hotel room of a half-nude John F. Kennedy. Most obvious, most pleasing to Freud, is her relationship to her absentee father, uncomfortably evoked every time she calls one of her lovers “Daddy” — not zaddy, not in the play-sexy way, but Daddy, spoken with the same, naked inflection of a child addressing a parent.
Monroe’s charisma as a screen presence remains mesmerizing, even for the people still discovering her today, because of its mystery, its contours that feel impossible to properly trace for an actor whose screen persona was so unusually alive. Nothing about the Monroe of Blonde, by contrast, is mysterious or even accidental. Everything is contingent. It eventually becomes clear that this approach to character is hardly limited to the film’s depiction of Monroe. Blonde is a portrait of a movie star, yet it adamantly resists a formulaic biopic summarizing of her life in which the plot might pivot around a timeline of her most notable roles. We do get the necessary nods to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her breeze-strewn dress in The Seven Year Itch, her backstage troubles on the set of Some Like It Hot; we get flashes of de Armas edited into Monroe’s movies, see her face flickering on the big screen, to full audiences, at the movies’ premieres. But this feels downplayed compared to Monroe’s time with Joe DiMaggio (played by Bobby Cannavale), Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), and the other men in her life. These romances, not her film roles, are the backbone to this story. And with each of these men, Dominik’s filmmaking encourages us to notice the way these men look at her, how they gaze at her as she speaks, seeing into her (or trying to) — as if, through male discernment, they might be able to find where the fiction of Marilyn ends and the real woman begins. (The exception is Kennedy, who barely looks at her — reduces her, essentially, to a mouth.) We’re encouraged to notice the way she seems to shrink from each man’s gaze, grows almost sheepish, in the way of someone who seems to know they’re being probed, sussed out.
In a movie full of power dynamics, these interactions are often effective, no less worthwhile for trying to sell us on ideas that may be obvious. Because de Armas’ performance leans more toward Norma Jean than her public counterpart, her occasionally loose grip on the role is often at its tightest in the scenes she shares with Evan Williams and Xavier Samuel (as celebrity sons Edward G. Robinson Jr. and Charles Chaplin Jr.), Brody, and Cannavale — maybe because these are the scenes that really give her something to talk about, but more urgently because these scenes lend credence to an idea of Marilyn constantly curdling beneath the weight of other people’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed attraction and, in the case of women, their sneering skepticism. De Armas movingly, and in the best moments subtly, comes off like an insect pinned in place for men’s evaluation — further, like a human being who doesn’t know but almost certainly fears what it is that these men might find if they look hard enough.
Dominik takes some of these ideas about Marilyn’s inner substance to their most damningly literal, distasteful extremes, most notably during abortion scenes, which are staged as spectacles, violent freakshows in which intravaginal shots of Marilyn being pried open with a speculum incite pure horror and regret; or, on the stranger front, a succession of treacly attempts to animate the children in Marilyn’s womb by inventing awkwardly telekinetic conversations with their floating, brightly backlit fetuses. The romances are more convincing on the subject of penetration, overdone as this idea is. Their violence is by and large quiet — more banal, more a matter of an imbalance of power.
Whether her partners “really” love Marilyn is not quite Blonde’s question. (Regarding other men — who talk about her ass when she leaves the room, belittle her when she cites Dostoevsky, insert specula with utter disregard — the answer is decidedly more clear.) Dominik’s script is more interested in the more incisive question of whether these men would know how to love Marilyn selflessly — whether “Marilyn Monroe,” the icon, can attract anything resembling unselfish devotion. Selfishness is not automatically contrary to love; that’s what can make love so brutal. The woozy haze of happiness suffusing Monroe’s romances with Miller and the Hollywood sons (who come as a pair), in particular, is eventually cut through with doubt for precisely this reason. Chaplin and Robinson, Jr., who feel unloved by their fathers and cursed by their names, see in Marilyn a fellow traveler, a love object worthy of their self-defeating sexual gratification. Miller, the most doting of them all, looks at Marilyn sees his former first love. The Marilyn of this movie seems to see surrogate fathers everywhere. If there’s any way out of the self-fulfilling disappointment of these projections, these people never find it.
Blonde is an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ epic novel of the same name, published in 2000. It isn’t the first. Joyce Chopra, director of the seminal Laura Dern movie Smooth Talk, which was also based on Oates’ writing, took a crack at adapting Blonde back in 2001, in a made-for-TV movie that starred Poppy Montgomery as Marilyn, and beside her, a cast ranging from Griffin Dunne, Eric Bogosian, and Wallace Shawn to Patrick Dempsey and Kirstie Alley. This version whittles Oates’ frightfully earnest novel down into a story of much plainer style than what Dominik is attempting in his new version. Eerily, both movies — one reconfiguring the novel into an old-fashioned soap opera (not a pejorative), the other grasping for the avant garde — have alighted on many of the same, sensationalistic beats from Oates’ novel, down to even some of the same, memorable lines, as when Marilyn, smitten with Arthur Miller, says that he needn’t call her Marilyn, or even Norma — he doesn’t even need to call her by name: “You can call me ‘Hey you!’” These movies don’t look or feel the same; one takes its melodrama for granted, and the other strains to push its melodramatic hysteria to more intellectual heights. It’s strange that they should both barrel toward the same foregone conclusions, but not unexpected. We cannot help but tell the same stories about Marilyn Monroe.
Admittedly, a filmmaker looking to break free of that cycle would probably find it wise to avoid Oates’ novel altogether, not because the novel itself is so purely reductive (though the minority opinion, upon its release, did take it to task for its masochistic, near-pornographic emotional hysteria), but because Oates’ rendition is practically booby trapped, prone to being misused in precisely this manner. This is a novelist who’s written first-person fictionalizations of Chappaquiddick, the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, and Jeffrey Dahmer; fear of sensationalism is not exactly her affliction. She largely gets away with it, however, because her domain is the old-fashioned gothic. The scandalous, the sensational, are her tools — useful ones at that, because they are inherently double-edged. Oates can use our helpless fascination with dead spectacles against us, inspiring true repulsion, much like a trickster genie who’d warned us to be careful what we wish for. Her novels are often in danger of spinning from their axes for exactly this reason — the emotions she labors to narrate, in her jittery, observant prose, are reckless.
Dominik’s Blonde, by contrast, is playing it safe and in denial about it. Its sincerest accomplishment is merely to add a little extra shading to a chalk outline — beautifully, with wonderful lensing and a Nick Cave/Warren Ellis score. She was sex symbol both enjoyed and destroyed by a mass public that still cannot help but gawk at the splayed-out innards on the pavement, all the while telling ourselves that there’s a lesson in all of this, that there’s something to be learned from wielding Marilyn’s life and image like a cudgel for our self-punishment. Blonde is no truer or more intelligent than a more openly sleazy rendition of this story. It leaves too little room (despite its two hour and 40 minute runtime) to reconcile the fuller reality of this woman. The genius of sexual insinuation who was also a victim of sexual abuse; the star who didn’t simply get enraged at scripts that seemingly joked at her expense (as this movie depicts), but rather found ways in her interviews and performances, to corrupt precisely this type of material, whose mock-innocence and double entrendres often slipped by so quietly people convinced themselves they weren’t intentional. This person was tied to the Marilyn that Dominik depicts in Blonde; they were the same person. Blonde tries to deny who she was in order to tell us who she was, punishing her to punish us. The math does not check out, and it shows.