Blonde is visually striking and demonstrates a clear aesthetic character, but Dominik’s insistence on the dogma of his limited themes keeps it from becoming either a more curious or playful film.
One of the very first people hospitalized with an “identity crisis” was Sean Connery. The term had seldom been used before The Sun’s reporting on his clinical visit, caused, reportedly, by an overidentification with his screen character, James Bond. Surely, actors of the stage and screen have felt similarly to Connery, but none before him quite had the language to express it. In Gerald Izenberg’s recent Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea, he notes that the very first time a newspaper used the term “identity crisis” was a New York Times report on college students in 1961. More surprisingly, the word “identity” itself, at least as we use it now, is a remarkably new invention, dating back only to the early twentieth century. As a result, it carries with it the discussions of authenticity from Heidegger and the concept of the ego from Freud, both of whom wrestled with extracting and identifying an individual out of society. This came at the same time that the “public persona” was stripped of its attachment to aristocratic etiquette guides and fully democratized. Now, with mass communication and a large variety of consumer choices, anyone could brand themselves, though most chose a “keeping up with the Joneses” style of conformity. After World War II, a Soviet- or Nazi-style of government-sponsored conformity was abandoned for a more complicated, consumer-friendly conformity: the nationwide acceptance of the individual self. This self was a religious notion, specifically a Christian notion, going back at least as far as St. Augustine’s “inward turn,” though scholars like Larry Siedentop (Inventing the Individual) place Jesus himself as the first individual. This religious pre-history gave many cults, Esalen, the Human Potential Movement, advertisements, artistic movements, movies, political speeches, and the Stanislavski Method the power to emphasize such an inner “true” self at work with or against an outer “created” self — both now secular, scientific, “psychological.”
Celebrities (another twentieth-century invention) suffered uniquely in this new environment as their public personae could not be chosen “authentically” — studio bosses determined what could be acceptable behavior for their top-earners, and branded them accordingly. Some, like Robert Mitchum, could make a return to screen life even after jail time so long as their persona switched from dark maverick (Out of the Past, 1947) to innocent clerk (Holiday Affair, 1949). Others, like Marilyn Monroe, were not so lucky.
Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde serves as an 800-page testament to the mythic force behind this true, inner self. Whereas Marilyn Monroe had long been elevated to an American symbol (Lady Liberty shown imitating the Seven Year Itch pose countless times), Blonde elevates the behind-the-scenes, “authentic” Norma Jeane Baker to similar status. It was published in 2000, on the cusp of Internet-era celebrity, and vaunts the relatable and the realistic (for isn’t suffering so much more real than whatever else is sold?) just in time for content creators to do the same. But, as a character study, it is adroitly serious about Norma Jeane. Oates paints a full life lived hard, with Norma Jean rarely at the reins. The novel was adapted into a television two-parter the following year by Joyce Chopra, who gave the work a soft jazz soundtrack and soap-opera demeanor. Since sex could only be implied, CBS breezed by the rougher moments in favor of the novel’s playful scenes (such as Wallace Shawn’s extended sequence of developing her stage name, as if it were a science). Blonde can be this: the darkness of Hollywood stardom as you know it, love won and lost, and an in memoriam of a secular saint intended for the widest possible audience and advertisers’ blessings. The book is big enough to extract this. It is also big enough to extract something else.
Andrew Dominik, a man of few films but much prestige, has now directed a version of the novel that focuses on everything CBS left out. Its arthouse bravura guarantees that it is not for the widest possible audience; its unrelenting miserabilism (there is not a single laugh in the entire movie) guarantees that anyone watching simply for “Marilyn Monroe” will promptly shut it off. Indeed, much like Ana de Armas exasperatedly repeats throughout the film, “Marilyn isn’t here.” This Norma Jeane plays punching bag to the worst the world can offer, elevating her rather than Monroe to a St. Sebastian martyrdom, an icon. This experience contains beauty, just as a Greek tragedy might, but it lacks such tragedies’ simplicity and curiosity. In this film, the audience’s mere empathy, yet another twentieth-century invention, justifies her suffering. The Greeks asked for a lot more.
Blonde is certainly shot by the same Andrew Dominik as The Assassination of Jesse James. Just as Roger Deakins used a clever lens technique (mounting an old, wide-angle lens atop an ARRI Macro) to heavily distort the vignette around the image, Blonde’s DP Chayse Irvin meticulously changes lighting, lenses, aspect ratio, color, and camera techniques, often to astonishing effect. Each decision makes sense: Marilyn’s tryst on the beach with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edwin G. Robinson Jr. is shot wide to allow all three to fit in frame while prone, and the stark black-and-white (lit seemingly only by a single, intense key, just as any nighttime paparazzi photo would) fits the image into the amateur-chic allure of Monroe’s contemporary, Weegee. This technique, creating the most pleasant scene of the entire film, is later repeated in its most terrifying: her nightmare abduction, where the light’s amateur-chic becomes snuff. Irvin even uses a lens similar to Jesse James’s vignettes during Norma Jeane’s drugged sleepwalk, though the effect is even more intense, giving the space around her an Impressionistic effect close to those in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. The camera moves when it needs to and stays with a character when one would most want to wince. This is all the result of Blonde being Dominik’s dream project, the result of having over ten years to think of new shots and how to perfect them. But none of these perfect shots define the look of the film. The aspect ratio opens from Academy to wide to reveal a massive audience after a premiere screening, but it similarly opens wide to reveal an empty house. Color drops to black-and-white so quickly that it feels like a puzzle (is it change in perspective? Norma Jeane to Marilyn? Reality to fiction?), and lenses come and go just as fast. This is done to recreate the historical photographs of Marilyn which, combined with the deep-fake scenes of Ana de Armas in Marilyn’s movies, give a disturbing reinterpretation of Marilyn’s Hollywood image. Dominik and Irvin have crafted a great portfolio of shots and sequences, but their lodestar is faint and untrustworthy.
Blonde is also certainly shot by the same Andrew Dominik as Killing Them Softly, a film that interspersed Barack Obama’s direct speeches about the 2008 economy just in case the audience didn’t understand the nuances of being a hitman. One thematic note rings out: stardom and its artifice will destroy you. Thus, Ana de Armas must not play the cooing Monroe of the movies, nor even the Norma Jeane of Oates’ novel. De Armas’ performance is one of being destroyed over and over, and she certainly sounds like Marilyn when she falls and begs and cries. Blonde proceeds episodically, returning to a few key issues: a child Norma Jeane is promised a destiny in Hollywood as her abusive mother reveals that her father (seen only in a single portrait) was a studio bigshot and, perhaps, still is. Her mother is placed in a psych ward as Norma Jeane finds her way into modeling, then nude modeling, then movie auditions — though each step up is a Pyrrhic victory. A scene in which studio execs laugh off her reading Dostoyevsky can come with the same crushing feeling as literal violence, and every happy relationship, indeed anything good at all, comes to an end, usually stripped right in front of her face. A CGI fetus (only slightly more realistic than 2001’s) returns again and again, sometimes literally talking, to remind Marilyn of what a family life could be like, only to receive the studio treatment for unwanted pregnancies. The brutishness of the Joe DiMaggio stand-in (Bobby Cannavale) gives way to the insouciance of the Arthur Miller stand-in (Adrien Brody), but none compare to JFK (an incredible lookalike in Caspar Phillipson) who thinks of her only as the highest-end prostitute a President can get, and treats her accordingly. Unsurprisingly, Norma Jeane’s death is one of the more peaceful scenes in the movie; after all, she’s finally escaped. Blonde hammers the point again and again: trauma will follow you, it will multiply your displeasure with the world, and no success comes free of charge. Only instead of Killing Them Softly’s Barack Obama, JFK makes that point more explicit for us, just in case we didn’t get it in all the previous scenes.
So, does Blonde exploit Marilyn Monroe? If not, does it exploit her image? Is it needlessly dour or sexually violent? After its NC-17 rating was announced, these questions ushered in a media campaign against the film, mostly in good faith. It reminded one of the outcry against Sanctuary, William Faulkner’s novel about an Ole Miss sorority girl who is kidnapped and raped in the Memphis underworld, as well as The Story of Temple Drake (1933), its subsequent film adaptation that nearly single-handedly brought the Hays Code into full enforcement. Blonde and Sanctuary are tame compared to works that actively seek to exploit (say, any pinku film or the writings of Marquis de Sade), but their mainstream marketing changes the conversation. Blonde would fit in snugly with the works of the brief New French Extremism, but Marilyn (and Norma Jeane perhaps moreso) is tantamount to a secular religious icon: why desecrate her image and make her suffer yet again? Why make this movie at all? Dominik himself is flippant about this question. After all, wouldn’t a feminist-revisionist movie about a Marilyn raging against the system or even a by-the-numbers biopic be just as fictional, just as exploitative? He’s most interested in telling a story about childhood trauma, and the myth of Norma Jeane tells that story well. But that’s an unsatisfying answer, just as Blonde will be unsatisfying to anyone who takes a hardline position for or against the film before seeing it.
This critic’s favorite depiction of Marilyn Monroe is from Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007). Samantha Morton plays not Marilyn Monroe, but a Monroe impersonator, adding yet another layer of artifice to what’s on screen. There, Monroe is all symbol and breathiness and beauty, and she can party with Michael Jackson and the Pope (other impersonators in an acting commune). It’s exploitative in its own way: Korine will profit from the image that the studios forced on a real person, Norma Jeane Baker. But, Korine’s questions of self and acting are more curious and playful than Dominik’s insistence on the dogma of a tortured “true” self and the burden of “public” self. In a time in which e-celebrities build followings by being “authentic” and “relatable,” unlike the manufactured celebrity of yore, it’s best to remember the Greeks who summoned their gods onstage with the power of a mask.
You can stream Andrew Dominik’s Blonde on Netflix beginning on September 30.