Blonde (2022)

Andrew Dominik | 2hr 46min

The 2020s decade is still young, and yet it would be a tough ask for anyone to find a film from the past three years as stubbornly ambitious as the surreal, disorientating character study Andrew Dominik conducts in Blonde. The word biopic has often been thrown around here like some objective standard of veracity for the film to measure up to, though it is not exactly a fitting descriptor. Blonde’s source material is not a memoir or biography or any kind, but rather a historical fiction novel written by Joyce Carol Oates, filling in the blanks of Norma Jean’s largely undocumented private life which was frequently stifled by the publicity around her far more glamorous celebrity persona, Marilyn Monroe.

Dominik often uses a vignette effect here in Blonde that similar (but not identical) to the one he used in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Instead of smearing the edges of the lens with vaseline, he uses a radial blur that seems to ripple out from Marilyn at the centre.
Rarely a close-up that isn’t highly stylised or warped in some way, here using the refraction of glass to obscure de Armas’ face.

The controversy around Dominik’s depiction of the beloved Hollywood actress herself has taken on a life of its own in public discourse, and not without some justification. Moral arguments can indeed be made about the overwhelming presence of the male gaze, and the film’s exploitation of her story. For what he is creating here though in mixing vignettes ranging from historically accurate to totally fabricated, substituting Norma for a fictional character would have turned Blonde into an entirely different film, potentially less concerned with Hollywood’s cruel manufacturing of celebrities as bastions of purity and success. There is a legacy attached to Marilyn that carries a weight unlike anyone else in history, real or imagined, and it hangs like a dark spectre over Dominik’s psychological drama. There is little here that is depicted with absolute objectivity, and through this uncomfortable ambiguity we find our own way into the mind of a woman gradually losing her grip on reality, believing in firm truths and hopeful ideals that only crumble in her hands.

With subject matter as harrowing as this, Dominik is clearly following in the footsteps of provocateurs like Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noé, and Luis Buñuel, confronting audiences with the ugly machinations of a corrupt Hollywood movie machine brutally degrading and destroying its icons. Formally though, Blonde takes the shape of a Mulholland Drive-style nightmare, sinking its central woman deeper into vignettes of endless, existential terror that tear her between two conflicting identities – the beloved starlet everyone adores, and the traumatised woman haunted by that alternate persona.

Dominik composes his shots with masses of negative space to emphasise Norma’s isolation even when she is surrounded by people.

As Norma Jean sits in front of her dressing room mirror preparing for a public appearance, she speaks to the spirit of Marilyn as if summoning her for a possession. “Please come. Don’t abandon me,” she whispers, while her make-up artist assures her “She’s coming.” Very slowly, Dominik dollies his camera forward, finally arriving on the final frame of Marilyn’s duplicated reflections, taking over Norma’s body with a bright, beautiful smile. Those who personally know Norma recognise Marilyn Monroe as a phony name she created “like you gave birth to yourself”, and she too recognises the artifice while watching herself in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. While Marilyn dances onscreen in a vibrant, pink dress, Norma sits in the audience bathed in the projection’s hellish, red glow, struggling to reconcile her two identities.

“That thing up on the screen, it isn’t me.”

A fluid tracking shot forward as Norma summons the spirit of Marilyn, and then finally resting on these double mirrors as she arrives.

It would be easy for any actress to fall into mere mimicry of Marilyn’s breathy voice and smouldering smile, and yet Ana de Armas plays affectingly to a rawer, more deeply wounded vision of the cultural figure, at the mercy of physical and psychological forces beyond her control. At her core, we see a version of Norma that we haven’t seen before, pining for a loving family that she never knew and never will know. This is primarily represented through cutaways to the fetuses growing inside her at various points through her life, each of whom meet tragic, disastrous fates, though the motif also extends to reminders of her own infancy when she slept in a chest of drawers. In Dominik’s formal construction of this surreal symbolism, he effectively visualises the promises of alternate lives she could have led, each one trapped, lost, or aborted by the domineering powers of studio executives.

The motif of babies has been a point of contention for many critics, though the formal consistency is undeniably strong. Norma often hallucinates her own infancy trapped in drawers, almost like an early coffin.

The recurring voiceovers of the father she never knew serve a similar purpose as well, as in his absence she conjures up an image of him as a warm, loving man – perhaps the only man who loved as Norma, rather than Marilyn. His letters lead her through her darkest times, as while her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, beats her, that warm, paternal voice takes over the scene, detaching us from its immediate brutality.

Strangely enough, there is a touch of Terrence Malick in these quiet, contemplative voiceovers, though here they are not so much prayers as they are escapes from the physical world, letting Norma resort to the only defence she has left – her conscious mind. Among Blonde’s most gruelling scenes is that in which JFK orally rapes her for what feels like minutes, and as it unfolds she disappears into her head, searching for some sort of explanation via her elusive, fame-seeking alter ego.

“Who brought me here to this place? Was it Marilyn? But why does Marilyn do these things? What does Marilyn want? Or is it a movie scene?”

Dominik aims to disgust and provoke his audience all through Blonde, though it is especially uncomfortable in this scene for two reasons. Obviously the subject matter and perspective taken is difficult to stomach, but he also turns the source of her humiliation back on us, and yes, even himself.

Slowly, the camera pulls back on this shot to reveal an audience watching her on a screen, and in this moment Blonde self-reflexively suggests that there is very little difference between those fans who celebrate the artifice of Marilyn Monroe, those who take perverse pleasure in her sexual humiliation, and those like us who acknowledge her pain, yet keep watching anyway. All three groups of spectators continue perpetuating a never-ending trauma, but the longer we sit in this agonising frame, we wonder – what else is there to do? The only way she would be afforded peace is to disengage from her legacy entirely, and yet that seems an impossible task in this culture that has so fully absorbed her image and name as shorthand for stardom.

Slow-motion, reverse POV shots, fish-eye lenses – Dominik is throwing the kitchen sink in terms of extreme avant-garde ambition, and it isn’t hard to see why it has been so rejected by critics who decry “style over substance.”

With as blatant an implication of its audience as this, it is not difficult to see why Blonde has driven away so many viewers wishing for a more saccharine, conventional biopic like Judy, though infuriating detractors even further is Dominik refined sense of visual artistry too easily brushed off as ‘pretentious’. In most cases the constant switching between black-and-white and colour cinematography serves to separate the sensational public life of Marilyn from the gentle home life of Norma, though with time even these begin to bleed into each other, creating an instability that prevents us from grounding ourselves in any single setting. Still, we keep on switching between these two alternate visual languages, as starkly contrasted as her dual identities – one moving in sensual slow-motion, lit up by the harsh, white radiance of flash bulbs and studio lights, and the other using a shallow depth of field and ethereal tonal contrasts to capture some gorgeously delicate compositions.

There is loose formal divide between Dominik’s black-and-white photography versus colour, though it isn’t always a strict dichotomy. In Norma’s public life as Marilyn, or even in those scenes where she feels the presence of Marilyn, Blonde will often return to monochrome, slow-motion, and the harsh, bright lighting of flash bulbs.
Meanwhile, Norma’s private life is often rendered in low-contrast, ethereal colours, giving Dominik the opportunity to let loose with extraordinary displays of mise-en-scène and a shallow depth of field.

In this way, style and substance become one in Blonde, setting up its visual discontinuity as a vessel through which we understand her own disorientation. This isn’t to say that everything here lands with purpose, as Dominik trips over himself a little with the erratic, ever-changing aspect ratios and inconsistent title cards marking the passing years, but many of the seamless editing transitions in Blonde keep it elegantly moving between reality, dreams, and movies, destroying the boundaries that lie between. Norma’s miscarriage on a beach is rapidly crowded by journalists eager to snap a photo, her traumatic abortion slips effortlessly into a nightmare of her burning childhood home, and perhaps most astounding of all, her bed sheets during a sexual encounter slowly transform into the Niagara Falls, where the movie she is currently starring in takes place.

Dominik’s surrealism is a strong formal through line in Blonde’s narrative of vignettes, rejecting conventional storytelling for a more impressionistic, Lynchian approach.
A hugely inspired transition connecting Norma’s sex life to her movies, turning her bed sheets into the Niagara Falls.

“What an ugly dream. What a crazy dream,” Norma mutters to herself after one particularly agonising hallucination, though like Mulholland Drive, Blonde is aiming its surreal commentary beyond any individual psychological disturbance, and towards the American Dream at large. Accusations of tastelessness may be pointed at Dominik’s perspective and his chosen subject matter, though they could certainly never be levelled at his talent as a filmmaker, absorbing his audience in a deep discomfort that few others have orchestrated with such formal sophistication. With some time and distance, Blonde will eventually be considered a classic, as well as a confirmation of the artistic talent Dominik displayed in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Regardless of where the consensus sits though, its accomplishment as a provocative piece of historical fiction speaks for itself, solemnly studying the differences between the adored star and her tragically doomed creator who suffered together within a single body.

The division of Norma and Marilyn carried through to the final seconds – while one tragically passes away, the other lives on in the cultural consciousness.

Blonde is currently streaming on Netflix.

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