“Please come. Don’t abandon me. Please.” Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane Baker as becoming-Marilyn Monroe prays to a mirror; her hands clasped together in desperate supplication. She’s begging for, as Joyce Carol Oates describes in her novel Blonde, “her Friend-in-the-Mirror.” Tears stream down her face as she pleads to the bulb-ringed three-way mirror. Her faithful, longtime makeup artist Whitey assures her softly, brushing on her eyeshadow: “She’s coming. She’s almost here.” She wipes her nose and looks up. Doubled in the angled reflection, Marilyn, laughing that iconic, squinted, wide-open grinning giggle.
This scene—with its eerie transformation from Norma Jeane to Marilyn—has haunted me ever since watching Andrew Dominik’s cinematic interpretation of Oates’s novel. And this isn’t the only moment from Dominik’s film that has been running endlessly through my mind since watching it the first time. An unraveling psychotic mother, played superbly by the chronically underrated Julianne Nicholson, driving her adorable, wide-eyed child Norma Jeane towards—and, at one point, thoroughly enveloped in—the raging inferno of the wildfires in the Hollywood Hills. A multiorgasmic vision of Marilyn shooting her famously breezy upskirt scene from The Seven Year Itch. Her white dress billows around her, revealing her equally white underwear, in intoxicating slow motion, over and over again, from various angles and occasionally flooded by blinding bursts of camera flashes, set to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s rising and falling dissonant off-key howls. A swarm of men rushes forward to capture her image: The American Goddess of Love on the Subway Grating, as the corresponding chapter is titled in the novel.
The more I was haunted by these scenes, the better I thought the film was. And the better I thought it was, the more I wanted to watch it a second time. And after watching it a second time, I’m convinced that Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is a masterpiece. A flawed one, to be sure. No film that includes a fucking talking fetus isn’t without outrageous fault and laughable bad taste. And yet to dismiss it entirely, as many critics and Twitter warriors have done, is a mistake. Like the novel, which transfixed me months ago (yes, I devoured all 700-ish pages of it–apparently unlike most everyone else commenting on the film), the film is a densely layered nightmarish allegory about the collective American imagination, which lies somewhere between fairytale, myth, and religion, frightfully interwoven with power, fame, violence, carnage, and objectification, and a woman trapped at the heart of it.
Sure, I’ve seen all the bile-drenched reviews and angry tweets. The film is misogynistic. It’s toxic. It’s exploitative. It’s trauma porn. It’s historically inaccurate. It’s anti-abortion. It’s trash. It’s boring. Blonde‘s Marilyn is a flimsy stereotype. A hollow impersonation. Hell, even Planned Parenthood felt the need to comment. The response to the film has been so vitriolic that, like many other cultural debates at the moment, an opinion on Blonde is now a moral and ethical dilemma. The pure at heart hate it. The sickos, like me, love it. Well, I’ve never cared about being on the perceived wrong side of these raging debates. I’m aware I’m possibly one of the only viewers who likes Blonde. And I’m definitely one of the only critics willing to put myself out there for the Internet’s outrage to admit it. On some level, I get it. A click-worthy pan is much easier to write than trying to yank on the metaphorical threads buried within the film that, on its surface, just seems like a disjointed parade of beautifully and ambitiously shot yet incredibly disturbing images.
This being said, with scenes of abortions, a miscarriage, attempted filicide, rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, and similar to Steven Knight’s distressed Diana, Spencer, a woman running around tormented for hours on end and occasionally puking, the film is not for everyone. It might not even be for YOU, dearest Filthy Dreams reader! Though accessibility has its net positives, it is a tad unfortunate that Netflix released Blonde rather than some more suitable arthouse production company. Clearly, its naughty NC-17 rating, a rating that I haven’t spotted since John Waters’s A Dirty Shame, prevented much in the way of options. Seeing Blonde pop up in the Netflix algorithm gives the false impression that it’s digestible to just any viewer beyond lovers of punishing plotless cinema. And it is most certainly not. Blonde is nearly three hours of conceptual, challenging, confrontational psychological horror. It’s like curling up on the sofa to watch Lars von Trier’s Antichrist or, perhaps more appropriately, David Lynch’s Inland Empire!
Like Inland Empire, Blonde could be best summed up succinctly as “a woman in trouble.” Lynch’s delightfully vague description completely avoids the first major hurdle in appreciating the film, which has confounded both critics, viewers, and filmmaker Paul Schrader alike: Blonde is not a Marilyn Monroe biopic. It’s not even an experimental one. Perhaps with all the published arguments about the film’s lack of accuracy, Andrew Dominik should have opened the film by unfurling Joyce Carol Oates’s “Author’s Note” like the intro to Star Wars: “Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction.” Yet, this is even an oversimplification. Originally intended to be a short novella, Oates’s brick of a novel is an extended ecstatic fever dream, made out of a cacophony of changing voices, italicized perspectives from others on Norma Jeane and Marilyn, fractured mental states, bursts of poetry, and appropriated quotes from sources that span from Emily Dickenson to acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski. The book’s subject is referred to, at various points, as Norma Jeane, Marilyn, the Magic Friend, the Blonde Actress, the Fair Princess, and the Beggar Maid. As much of a tangled web as the film seems, the novel is even more complex and Oates has even referred to Monroe as “my Moby Dick.” One of the best explanations I’ve spotted of the book draws this same Melville comparison: “Blonde is a true mythic blowout, in which Marilyn is everything and nothing—a Great White Whale of significance, standing not for the blind power of nature but for the blind power of artifice.”
Everything and nothing. This paradox is confronted when trying to explain exactly what the novel is actually about. It’s about America’s endless desire for fame and devouring destruction of those who obtain it, about movie-making, about religion, about self-creation, about gynecological horror, about trauma, about parenthood, about power and woman’s subservient place within it, and about our projection onto strangers on the silver screen. It’s not about Norma Jeane Baker or Marilyn Monroe. It is, yet it isn’t. Blonde is about Marilyn Monroe as a figure stuck inside our collective American imaginary, as part and parcel of America’s identity. I mean, she is Miss Golden Dreams. Perhaps the key to Blonde is buried within the text itself: “Marx had famously denounced religion as the opiate of the people, now it was Fame that was the opiate of the people; except the Church of Fame carried with it not even the huckster’s promise of salvation, heaven. Its pantheon of saints was a hall of distorting mirrors.” Saint Marilyn is a mirror held up in Blonde—it’s more about us than her.
Andrew Dominik took this pantheon of saints as a hall of distorting mirrors as the film’s operating principle, both thematically and formally. (Not to mention quite literally–there are more than a few scenes of Norma Jeane staring into the mirror, splitting herself in two). The film opens with a brief and sudden flash of Marilyn in black and white as Aphrodite on the subway grate, before spiraling off into, what Dominik has called, “an avalanche of images and events,” beginning with Norma Jeane’s mother Gladys manically showing her a photograph of her (alleged) father. Though the film is loosely (and I mean loosely) chronological, from her childhood to her death at 36, Blonde doesn’t have an easily summarized plot. The trajectory of the film can be mapped out in any number of ways: through Monroe’s film clips, from All About Eve to Some Like It Hot, through the letters she receives and covets from “her tearful father,” and through her relationships, from her threesome with doomed sons—the Golden Age of Hollywood’s Hunter Bidens—Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), The Ex-Athlete (*cough* Joe DiMaggio, played by Bobby Cannavale), The Playwright (*cough* Arthur Miller, played by Adrien Brody), and finally, The President (*cough* JFK, played by Caspar Phillipson).
However, this gives an incorrect representation of the film as having a forward-moving linear trajectory. Instead, the film frequently circles back and folds in on itself with certain images repeating (mirrored, if you will). The backs of people’s heads in a car, shot from the backseat. Playing “Für Elise” on the piano. A baby shut within a dresser drawer. Running or driving through flames. Roses. A cut on a woman’s right cheek, from Nelle in Don’t Bother to Knock to Gladys in the asylum to Norma Jeane’s own harried fingernail rips during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Even dialogue harkens back to earlier scenes. When auditioning for Don’t Bother to Knock, Norma Jeane says with breathy feigned shock, “It’s such a strange disturbing story. This mentally unbalanced woman almost killing a little girl.” Earlier, we see Norma Jeane’s mother almost drowning her in the bathtub as a child.
Some reoccurring imagery, though, undermines the entire success of the film because of Dominik’s compulsion to be so goddamn aggravatingly literal at times. The chatty fetus is an abomination. For what it’s worth, I don’t interpret the film as anti-abortion since I believe women should be allowed to be portrayed as having complex emotions, including ambivalence and regret, without being silenced for diverting from an emotional response that would make all of us pro-choice-ers feel more comfortable. That being said, the talking fetus is an unforgivable crime of cinema. But that’s not the only problem. The hokey reappearance of the photograph of Norma Jeane’s (supposed) father is heavy-handed and unnecessary, as is the pop psychology lesson about absent fathers. A lesser offense, to be sure, but Norma Jeane’s frequent nudity becomes distracting at points and easily lends itself to critiques of objectification.
Yet, I can overlook these, at times, egregiously bad decisions. Mostly because I understand what Dominik was trying to achieve in all cases. Having read the novel, Monroe does talk to Baby, who exists as a character within the text. She also obsesses about her father and calls many of her lovers “Daddy.” And she does discover her “Magic Friend” in the mirror while topless, as a kind of pubescent sexual awakening. As Oates writes, “Her Friend-in-the-Mirror who pirouetted in nakedness, did the hula, wiggled her hips and breasts, smiled, smiled, smiled, exulted in nakedness before God as a snake exults in its sinuous glittery skin.” Would the film be better without some of these godawful choices? Oh, fuck yeah. I bet there were other ways, Andrew! But I still believe the film has more to offer beyond fetal shock tactics.
Even the worst of these echoes give the film a strange dreamlike quality that is only augmented by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s hypnotic ambient spinning score (Give them their Oscars now!). The score owes a lot to both The Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen and Cave and Ellis’s Carnage. Not only does an instrumental version of Ghosteen’s “Bright Horses” appear over a key montage in the film, but certain sonic tropes found throughout Carnage also send the soundtrack tumbling down from its spiritually euphoric heights. Having directed two documentaries about Nick Cave—One More Time With Feeling and This Much I Know to Be True, Dominik is not just a colleague of Cave and Ellis, but a knowledgeable fan of their musical output. So I don’t think I’m stretching too far—or giving into my unending Nick Cave fanaticism—when I’d guess Dominik took inspiration from the déjà-vu obtained by recurring phrases on both Ghosteen and Carnage.
With the score frequently dipping into Angelo Badalamenti territory, Blonde is quite clearly also heavily influenced by David Lynch. And for a good reason. Who else has dived into Hollywood’s darkness quite like David? It’s worth mentioning that in the 1980s Lynch and Mark Frost once wrote a script for a potential Marilyn biopic, but abandoned it for Twin Peaks. Blonde doesn’t just reference one David Lynch film—it seems to celebrate almost all of them. A nonlinear nightmare that dips into the horror genre, as well as painterly obscured and melted faces, is straight out of Inland Empire. The examination of fame and multiple identities is right from Mulholland Drive. The black and white grotesquerie of a lunging mob is pure Elephant Man. And the psychological, sexual, emotional, and physical torture of—The One—the troubled blonde? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Laura Palmer has always been Lynch’s Marilyn.
Yet, Blonde isn’t just an extended tribute to Lynch. Its central monomaniacal fixation is dead set on images of Marilyn Monroe, both in film and photography. Perhaps the most obvious is archival footage of Monroe’s films themselves into which Dominik has keyed Ana de Armas. In some, like her performance of “I Want To Be Loved By You” from Some Like It Hot, de Armas disappears entirely, a kind of confusion of identity that is as astonishing as it is chilling. This is further heightened by a subsequent Some Like It Hot scene in which Monroe herself briefly appears on screen in profile with Tony Curtis before de Armas returns. With de Armas’s jaw-droppingly committed performance, in which even her occasional slip of a Cuban accent just adds to the uncanniness rather than takes away, the film startlingly blurs reality and fiction.
Blonde is also driven by a devotion to photography too, rapidly switching from black and white to color, as well as changing aspect ratios, for no other reason than to remain faithful to the source imagery. Many of these photographs are iconic: Marilyn cavorting in the waves in a sweater, Marilyn in her sheer rosy pink jumpsuit, Marilyn at dinner with Joe DiMaggio—I mean, The Ex-Athlete, Marilyn hugging a pillow in Douglas Kirkland’s “A Night With Marilyn” from his “White Sheet” series. And some, well, I’m more aware of from being a ghoul. There is a shot in the film, after an extended night vision chase scene and abortion maybe-nightmare, that resembles a crime scene photograph of Marilyn’s corpse rumpled in bed. On his photo-mania, Dominik explains, “I’m not interested in reality. I’m interested in the images. So I selected every image of Marilyn I could find and then tried to stage scenes around these images. You’re constantly referring to them.” More than just a cinematographic exercise, this utmost faithfulness to image lays bare that we are watching Norma Jeane through recorded memory of her—what has been preserved publicly, not her diaries or private thoughts.
Add to this scenes in which it becomes clear we are watching her through the eyes of another. Take, for example, the over-the-top romantic soft-filtered montage of The Playwright and Norma Jeane as they romp through the beach and a field, lean against a fence (in an exact replica of Miller and Monroe’s photograph), and bend towards the camera, breaking the fourth wall. In one piece of this montage, we see Norma Jeane bathed in sunshine from The Playwright’s perspective as she says, “We love you.” Here, The Playwright is seeing Norma Jeane and yet not. To him, she is a stand-in for “his Magda,” his first unconsummated love, object of life-long yearning, and subject of an unrealized play. During an earlier conversation with Norma Jeane about the role of Magda, The Playwright insists: “She wouldn’t dream of being cruel.” After their marriage, The Playwright later recounts to a friend on the phone: “It would never occur to Norma to be cruel.”
In fact, all of the characters around Norma Jeane interpret her through their own projections. Her mother sees her “own secret self, exposed.” The Harvey Weinstein-esque rapist/producer Mr. Z mounts her like another one of his prized stuffed dead birds pinned to his wall. Her agent I.E. Shinn gazes at his own creation–his gorgeous Frankenstein’s monster. “I understand you. I invented you,” he insists. Cass Chaplin and Eddy Robinson Jr. view Norma Jeane as yet another damaged child in their threesome, as well as someone who has escaped their stifling lot living under the weight of their fathers’ stardom. As Chaplin says, “You never knew your father. So you’re free. You can invent yourself. I love your name. Marilyn Monroe. It’s so totally phony. I love it. Like you gave birth to yourself.” The Ex-Athlete, in a very Italian manner, interprets Marilyn through the dichotomy of the Madonna/Whore: the newlywed in the kitchen learning how to make spaghetti from his own mama and the slut above the subway grate who needs to be put in line. Yet he also wants to protect her like a child. The Ex-Athlete explains (while also grasping at her neck), “I just want to protect you from all these jackals. I want to take you away from all of this.” And The President? Well, to him, Marilyn is a sex slave mostly.
A lot of the criticism about the film has been lobbed towards the characterization of Monroe as a perpetual victim existing primarily in tear-strewn fright throughout the film. But this choice becomes more comprehensible when understanding her characterization not as Monroe herself, but as a woman stuck in other people’s projections—a girl in amber, a figment of others’ imagination, including Dominik’s. Dominik is not unaware either. He shows his hand in the scene in which The Playwright and Norma Jeane discuss Magda. Like Magda, who is herself an idealized projection lodged within The Playwright’s memory, Norma Jeane says, “…she never changes much. She’s always so good.”
Warped by the funhouse mirror of fame and the various needs and desires of others, she responds by fracturing her identity in two: Norma Jeane and Marilyn. She frequently refers to Marilyn in nebulous oblique terms as if a completely different person. “She is pretty, I guess. But it isn’t me, is it? How about when people find out?“ she asks. At times, this splintered identity transitions from a career choice to dissociation in response to trauma. Take, for instance, the notorious blow job scene with The President. Traveling to New York to meet with The President, Norma Jeane is carried by Secret Service into The President’s hotel room where she finds him on the phone talking to an advisor about sexual assault allegations while dirty glasses with another woman’s lipstick stains sit nearby. Rather than, you know, paying attention to her, The President shoves her head into his crotch. With her eyes bugged out, Norma Jeane contemplates in a voiceover:
“Who brought me to this place? Was it Marilyn? But why does Marilyn do these things? What does Marilyn want? Or is it a movie scene? I’m playing the part of a famous blonde actress meeting the boyishly handsome leader of the free world, the President of the United States, for a romantic rendezvous. The Girl Upstairs in a harmless soft porn film. Just once. Why not? Any scene can be played. Whether well or badly, it can be played and it won’t last more than a few minutes.”
Halfway through this monologue, we see her fellating image projected upon the big screen in a movie house. Exploitative? To be sure. But it also symbolizes her complete dissociation from Norma Jeane in this instant to Marilyn—the star—as well as implicates us in her exploitation. We are that audience watching her sexual assault.
Because it’s not just the characters within the film who see what they want to see. Nor is it only Dominik. So do we. Ironically, a significant motivating force for the ire directed towards the film comes from an urge to protect Marilyn, a certain ownership over her story, or an unrealistic belief in knowing with certainty what she would have wanted. Just more projections onto Marilyn. More distorting mirrors. And I don’t think Dominik thinks of this collective possession of Marilyn too positively either since at one point he positions the viewer in an airplane toilet so that she can vomit on us. Not exactly a subtle way to express contempt for the audience.
Because I’m also obsessed with American myth-making, I find Dominik’s depiction of Monroe’s imprisonment within the American imaginary absolutely visionary—intoxicating even—despite the film’s faults. More than simply a historical figure or superstar, Norma Jeane is represented in Blonde as a religious figure like a saint or Christ even. The latter is particularly relevant in her crucifixion-like death pose and the film’s final shot of her pale and lifeless bare foot encased in the shadow of the changing light, filmed in the house where Monroe actually died. Her multitude of traumas is also so extreme that the film comes off like Marilyn’s Stations of the Cross (Marilyn falls…Marilyn falls again). Her constant reinterpretation akin to a kind of American religion. This too is revealed within the book in perhaps my favorite quote: “Since childhood, her first movies at Grauman’s Theatre, in thrall to the Fair Princess and the Dark Prince, she’d understood that movies are the American religion. Oh, she wasn’t the Virgin Mary! She didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary. But she could believe in Marilyn—sort of.”