While the technical aspects of the film are admirable, they ultimately do not come together to transform a soulless script that plays as trauma porn.
This review contains spoilers for the film Blonde as well as descriptions of sexual assault, abortion, suicide and violence.
Marilyn Monroe is perhaps one of the most famous performers to ever grace the silver screen. While it feels like her story has been told many, many times, it is important to remember why her story has been told so often. Her estate, including the rights to her image and life story, were left to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, who passed away soon after Monroe. The rights to Monroe’s life were then passed on to someone she had never even met… Her life story and image were then up for grabs. Anyone with money could pursue Monroe’s story and likeness.
While many of us treasure her filmography, some aren’t aware of Monroe outside of her tabloid stories that we’ve seen told in various films, documentaries, and books, including Joyce Carol Oates’ 700-plus page novel, ‘Blonde.’ Monroe’s personal troubles have often become what the public first thinks of her rather than her devotion to her craft, success in a short career, and impressive mark on the film business.
Andrew Dominik set out to adapt Oates’ fictional novel ‘Blonde,’ not just as a “biopic,” but as what he described as a film that would recreate images of Monroe’s life. Dominik is successful in this as the film does not tell Monroe’s story; it shows images of her life and the fable he wishes to portray through those images alone. The film is a tough watch for anyone, Monroe fan or not – it is nearly three hours long showing Monroe go from an abused child to a struggling Hollywood actress finding herself with all the wrong company, ending with her uneventful death at 36 years old.
The film avoids falling into the formulaic biopic trope as it never really begins to have a narrative plot. Blonde barely scratches the surface of making any sort of commentary on the industry chewing up and spitting stars out. It could have been used as a stand-in for any famous woman who has had the industry exploit her just to turn on her in front of the world, but the film doesn’t have anything to say. Dominik’s intention may have been to show the business exploiting Monroe, but at what point is the film guilty of the same grievance? While the film could be in on the meta of it showing exploitation through exploiting the famous actress, watching the Netflix film feels a bit as if Dominik was not aware of that. The film abuses the famous star more than it points the finger at anyone else. Blonde feels as if almost the entire runtime is used to showcase the worst moments in Monroe’s life, most of which are fictionalized. There is no relief for the audience or Ana de Armas’ Monroe from the trauma constantly onscreen.
Blonde fails to make Monroe a living, breathing presence. The film continues the trope of Monroe as a sexually charged woman who would do anything for male attention. While some may argue that Dominik, who adapted the screenplay himself, does seemingly show her as an artist who is curbed by things out of her control, both men and mental illness, that is not the case here. Monroe is continued to be made a victim of her own circumstances throughout Blonde. Dominik takes the “daddy issues” trope and runs with it. The opening of the film immediately sets up Monroe’s longing for a father as her mother, played by Julianne Nicholson, pulls Norma Jeane to a framed photo, saying it’s her father and he’s a big Hollywood producer, but his identity must remain a secret. Her teen and early twenties are reduced to a montage of various magazine shoots, including her infamous nude calendar shoot. The story skips over a lot of history with Monroe’s various contracts with studios and failures for her career to take off. The film, as the novel did, shows Monroe being raped by Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, played by David Warshofsky, which led to her getting a brief, but breakout role in All About Eve. Monroe, in real life, had never suggested she was raped by any Hollywood producer; she had recalled “casting couch” sexual encounters, but nothing suggests any of them were with Zanuck. Creating a fictionalized rape to start Monroe’s journey into stardom is dismissive of the work the actress put in. This fable doesn’t allow Monroe to even have her own victories, as flashbacks to this rape are shown at various points throughout the rest of the film.
Continuing with fictional tales, Blonde next has Monroe in a three-way relationship with Cass, played by Xavier Samuels, and Eddy, played by Evan Williams, the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, respectively. After one of the only consensual sex scenes in the film, there is a fade into Niagara that audiences will roll their eyes at, but soon are subjected to Monroe having another sexual encounter with her partners, but this time while watching herself on the big screen… The trio not only have a sexual relationship displayed in the film, but vow to be together forever. That is until Monroe finds out she’s pregnant: this is when Blonde introduces the fetus cam with this first pregnancy, where the screen is fully just a fetus in the womb. Both men are less than thrilled about the pregnancy. However, the actress remains excited until she learns that the mental illness her mother struggles with could be inherited. Her worrying about passing on a mental illness, combined with pressures from the studio, leads to her scheduling an abortion.
As she is on the way to the abortion, she changes her mind, and Monroe begs to go home, not to go through with the procedure. Watching her beg not to go through the abortion apparently isn’t enough misery for the audience to Dominik as the next scene goes to the highly-discussed abortion POV. While the POV switch lasts mere seconds here, the perspective switches from Monroe on the operating table in tears to the clamps being inserted is vicious. After the forced abortion, the actress has an inner discussion with the unborn child about she feels sick she gave up a child for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “You killed your baby for this” is one of the first anti-choice lines throughout the film.
Blonde touts Monroe’s relationships with men as many have always assumed; Dominik’s version of the actress has her calling all men daddy, desperately seeking male attention, and hanging on to letters from her unknown father. While it is on record that the real Monroe had a very difficult relationship with men, this film rarely shows she was able to look past any “daddy issues” and maintain healthy relationships with men. The scenes focused on the abusive relationship with the “Former Athlete,” aka Joe DiMaggio, played by Bobby Cannavale, show him uncomfortable with her fame and the infamous hotel fight after her filming of the subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch. The sincerest part of the film is when Monroe meets “The Playwright,” aka Arthur Miller, played by Academy Award winner Adrien Brody. These scenes feel like the only part of the film focused on the human Monroe was, not the bombshell projected into the world. She seems at ease as she tells him he can call her Norma. Yet, we do know the real Miller mistreated Monroe and looked at her as the stereotype portrayed to the world, calling her a whore in his notes she found, but this was not emphasized in the film. Monroe eventually becomes pregnant with her new playwright husband and while she’s so happy, the baby in her womb starts talking to her. The baby repeatedly asks her if she’s going to kill them again. The baby says it’s the same baby she had before, even though this is years later and with a different partner. The film then shows Monroe suffer a breakdown after her miscarriage, the visual of which is deeply disturbing, and that is the reason her latest marriage ends.
Moving on from miscarriages and divorce, Monroe is next seen vomiting directly onto the camera after mixing too many pills and champagne on her way to meet the President, played by Caspar Phillipson. After being carried by her arms down a hallway by the Secret Service as she yells out about not being a piece of meat. What comes next is the clear reasoning for the controversial NC-17 rating. While a TV with the Friendship 7 launch plays in the background, a very graphic oral sex scene that is not consensual with “The President” takes the forefront with Monroe’s face being the focus of the entire screen. While performing the act, the screen transitions into a theater screen with an audience watching as in a voiceover, she says, “I hope I don’t throw up.” As a rocket takes off, the president ejaculates into her mouth. Blonde isn’t done with the President yet. Before she can finish a sentence, JFK aggressively silences her with his hand and throws her onto the bed. Monroe lets out a shriek, and the screen cuts to black. Monroe wakes up in bed, bruised and throwing up onto the bed. The Secret Service once again physically drag her, but this time to a bathroom. When she pees, she winces in pain. The audience is left to assume that she was raped by the then President of the United States.
There is no record of JFK sexually assaulting Monroe in real life. There are numerous interviews on record of colleagues, friends and reporters that the two had engaged in a consensual sexual relationship, but nothing has ever noted or hinted at sexual assault during the course of their sexual relationship. Once back in her home, Monroe wakes up in the middle of the night as the film switches to night vision. You can see her, topless, scared as she walks around her house. There are various men throughout her house and soon she screams as the screen cuts to black. She wakes up in a hospital and while many who know Monroe’s story are wondering if this is her time in a mental hospital, it is somehow worse. She’s on an operating table and various men fill the room alongside doctors and nurses, including Secret Service agents. Monroe is screaming and fighting against whatever is about to happen as the POV switches into the abortion mode again. However, this is longer and you see more tools in and out of Monroe’s body. It’s absolutely brutal and as if it cannot get worse, Monroe next awakens in bed. Thinking the kidnapping and abortion was all a dream, she gets out of bed, but her lower body is covered in blood. There would never be this much blood after an abortion, yet the purpose here is to shock the audience, to vilify the abortion itself.
Dominik shies away from the conspiracy theories Oates goes into in the novel regarding the Kennedy family and the actress’s death. However, the manner in which he shows her final moments is far more tragic. Monroe receives a call that Cass has died and left her something in his passing. When she receives the package of what he left behind for her, it’s a stuffed animal they had agreed to give their baby that she did not carry to term. There’s a card that says, “To My Daughter” and the message inside is that there was no tearful father. The letters Monroe has received throughout the film from her ‘Tearful Father’ have all been some sick joke Cass carried out, taunting Monroe as he pretended her father was out there, longing to have a relationship with her. Feeling overwhelmed with psychological torment, Monroe turns to pills and alcohol. The slow manner Dominik has the famous starlet take the pills feels to imply she was trying to kill herself. The camera eventually follows her, topless, into her room and eventually loses focus as she drifts away to her eventual death.
It’s hard to ignore the feeling that Dominik is getting off on the gruesome way he’s painted his blonde character. De Armas’s Monroe is stripped of all dignity on screen in what feels like trauma porn for most of the film’s runtime. While both de Armas and Brody give memorable performances, it’s hard to feel anyone comes out unscathed from Blonde.
While the cinematography from Director of Photography Chayse Irvin is visually stunning, the shifts in aspect ratio, shuffles between black-and-white to color, and various lens effects don’t actuate to much thematically. Sure, these various visual components don’t need to mean anything, but it could have been interesting to utilize these techniques to switch between Norma Jeane and the Marilyn Monroe persona or how men perceived the actress versus who she really was. Given the lack of narrative plot throughout the film, it would have been compelling to see the visual flares utilized to tell some sort of story to the audience. The hypnotizing score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is hauntingly beautiful but doesn’t always mesh well into the film. The costume design and makeup and hairstyling are incredible to transform de Armas into Monroe. While the technical aspects of the film are admirable, they ultimately do not come together to transform a soulless script that plays as trauma porn.
The emphasis on the fictional sexual assault, nudity and violence is not a substitute for insight. There is a way to explore how Monroe was exploited without mistreating her even more, but Blonde does nothing but exploit her. The film puts Marilyn Monroe through fictional trauma, rape and abortions for the amusement of Andrew Dominik.
Likely: Lead Actress, Makeup & Hairstyling, Costume Design, Cinematography
Should be Considered: Original Score, Supporting Actor (Adrien Brody)
Release Date: Out now in Select Theaters; September 28, 2022 (Netflix)
Where to Watch: Select Theaters; Netflix
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky