TO SAY THAT ANDREW DOMINIK’S BLONDE is a biopic of Marilyn Monroe is not strictly accurate. It would be more precise to say that it is a nightmarish, elliptical horror movie about a beautiful blonde being subsumed, and then destroyed, by an unfeeling industry, and that the blonde’s name happens to be Norma Jean, though people sometimes call her “Marilyn Monroe,” or “slut,” or “sweetheart.” Based on Joyce Carole Oates’s frantic, fragmented, exhilaratingly ugly 2000 novel of the same name, it has passages of true, invigorating brilliance, and about as many moments of baffling mawkishness. Its formal daring is commendable but patchy, sometimes thrilling and sometimes—as when a CGI fetus communicates telepathically with its maternal host—bizarrely hokey. It bleeds in and out of color, banjaxing chronology in favor of a more expressionist arrangement of events. Like Oates’s bestseller, it amalgamates both fact and fiction in order to further amplify Monroe’s already mythic status, making her even less human and even more abstractly symbolic—a self-sacrificing female saint whose sexiness, passivity, Daddy Issues, and desire to be loved made her the perfect mark for Hollywood. Ana de Armas, in the lead role, achieves a clever bit of Monrovian mimicry—the small foxed frown, the stiff positioning of her mouth and cheekbones—but retains her Cuban accent, an apparently accidental but nevertheless effective move that lends the film further uncanniness. It is made evident that we are watching someone in a Marilyn costume, in the same way we might watch somebody standing in for Mary Magdalene in a Passion Play.
That the film gets Marilyn Monroe’s ill-treatment by the press and by the men in her life right is not in question. That it gets the woman herself right is debatable, and the degree to which this matters is directly in proportion to how far we are supposed to see the film as being about Monroe at all. A well-known anecdote about the real Marilyn Monroe has Truman Capote discovering her in a restaurant bathroom, gazing spellbound at her own reflection in the mirror. “I’m looking at her,” she allegedly told him, coolly fascinated. The story sums up Monroe’s masterful command of her own image, her tremendous self-awareness, and the care with which she split her discrete selves: the calculating, genius comedienne and the dumb caricatured sexpot. In Blonde, it is a male lover who asks if she’s “looking at her” in the mirror, and the alteration is suggestive of a curious disinterest in interrogating the degree to which “Marilyn Monroe” was not merely a dissociative side effect of trauma, but a carefully and cannily maintained creation. (It is telling, too, that the film has her praying desperately for her persona to appear, when those who knew her often noted her ability to turn it on and off, as casually as if she were flipping a switch.) She is never shown excelling—as she did, again and again—as a comic actress. At one point, Domnik freezes on her face before she begins performing an Arthur Miller monologue, giving us another opportunity to see her as a silent image before cutting to the audience’s rapturous ovation. Presumably, this device is supposed to ironize, through replication, the male gaze. Funny, though, how doing a thing ironically so often simply looks like doing it.
“In the movies they chop you all to bits,” de Armas’s Monroe complains. Certainly narratively, in the case of Blonde—emotionally, too, since Dominik is unafraid of showing his heroine-martyr being psychically dismembered. I understand many critics’ cautiousness around the nastiest passages of Blonde, which features rape and forced abortions and degrading oral sex, but for me, these are the sections of the movie that work most effectively, containing as they do some of the original novel’s bracing anger. “Why is female funny?” Oates has her Monroe character thinking, in a panic, as she films Some Like It Hot. “Why did they love her? why when her life was in shreds like clawed silk? why when her life was in pieces like smashed glass? why when her insides had bled out? . . . why did the world want to fuck fuck fuck Marilyn?” There should be room for white-hot fury and brutality in depictions of misogyny, and in their most scrambled and nightmarish moments, both the novel and the movie achieve the effect that J. G. Ballard once suggested he desired when writing Crash—that of rubbing humanity’s face in its own vomit. Truthfully, the only auteur I would have trusted implicitly with an adaptation of Oates’s novel already conceived of, and then shelved, a project about Marilyn Monroe, with some elements of that germinal idea carrying over into the 2001 film Dominik is clearly cribbing from in Blonde’s most striking shots. That movie, by making its central blonde so much an everywoman that she was literally two different women, elided the need to use a famous figure’s story, and in doing so escaped the ethical dilemma that dogs Blonde. Still, there is one astounding moment late in Dominik’s film that will stick with me forever: Something terrible has happened, and Monroe, in the early morning light, rises naked from her bed. “What an awful dream,” she repeats to herself, as if in a trance. “What a horrible dream.” As the sheets fall back, we see blood covering her body from her waist down to her knees, and a less interesting scene would have concluded with her clocking this and screaming. Instead, Dominik has her stumble from the room, not even bothering to look. She is so perpetually steeped in blood, the vignette implies, that she has ceased to even register the feeling of it.
Blonde opened in select US theaters on September 16 and begins streaming on Netflix on September 28.