Just 10 short minutes into the 166-minute film titled Blonde based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates and it’s established as a challenging watch. Tough to get into the mindset to give undivided attention to and endure the relentlessly explicit subject matter from writer director Andrew Dominik, his take on a formulaic biopic is rather refreshing but the themes within aren’t to be taken lightly nor are they for the faint at heart. The type of content that is gifted the rare NC-17 rating for what transpires within the screenplay. With the narrative Dominik adapts from the novel, the director is asking a lot from the viewer – time, patience and a stomach for the atrocities that happen to the young woman we all know as Norma Jeane, professionally known as Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas).
Somewhere in between the chaos of Norma’s life, she is asked how her career started by one of her husbands, specifically the ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale). Dominik then cuts to a scene that has already come and gone triggering Norma Jeane to relive one of her nightmares. 95% of Blonde is triggering to survivors of horrendous domestic abuse and assault. The question then begs to be asked – why is this exploitation of Norma Jeane’s or any survivor’s life necessary? Watching the film, it might be mentally easier to consume Blonde in more than one sitting, but better to rip the bandaid completely off all at once rather than prolonging the viewing of suffering at the expense of this damaged human being.
Cannavale plays a small role in Blonde but has an impactful impression on Norma Jeane. As ‘The Yankee Clipper’ Cannavale has an old school charm to him that anyone could fall for. But once the layers are pealed back, whether true or not in how their relationship went, it’s hard to stomach that DiMaggio added on to Norma’s growing list of traumatic moments.
What’s fascinating about Dominik’s approach to the film is its departure from the formulaic execution majority of biopics encompass. Instead of being introduced to the celebrity at a young age, watching the meteoric rise to fame, bad judgement that tarnishes their reputation only to make up for it in a redemption piece, Dominik takes the shock value of this fictionalized life and bombard the main character with traumatic moment after traumatic moment. It’s relentless against a broken person struggling to keep everything together – by the slimmest of threads.
At another point during the film, separate from the ensuing chaos, in a quieter moment that happens to take place during a recreation of one of the actress’s more iconic photos during her career, she’s told that women everywhere are dying to be her, to be in her position, being one person that millions of people adore and can’t get enough of. It’s a theme that Dominik nails in this film. With everything Norma Jeane endured to get to that point, if people knew the truth, or a fraction of it, whether imagined in a drugged-out state of make-believe or real, would they want that level of fame. Fictionalized or not, what people, specifically Norma went through is something all survivor’s fear – reliving the moment after pushing it down so far and thinking everything will be ok, only for the memories to flood back and relapse.
Going back to how Dominik sets his biopic apart from the rest – every scene is a moment in time, frantically moving at several different paces, some lasting longer than others, some defining who Norma Jeane is and who she becomes and some that make no sense, only to add to the disturbing nature of the film.
Time wise, the sequences of events are shown in a non-linear manner, capturing the effects of drugs and alcohol, effecting Marilyn’s mental capacity.
An attack on the senses, the choice is bold but it doesn’t lend itself to be wise during some vulnerable moments. If we’re meant to be in the same mind state that Marilyn is, mission accomplished. A slew of filming techniques make up the DNA of Blonde, paying homage to old Hollywood while adding in a modern touch. Technically, it’s a film that is brilliantly framed, with life pouring out of every scene. Hard to consume as it is, denying the beauty in the choices of camera placement, the switches from color to black and white, the production design, score and cinematography or the use of several different aspect ratios should not be ignored.
Stepping into a role like this is Ana de Armas who disappears into Marilyn but more importantly Norma Jeane. Marilyn is a vessel, a façade for Norma, a creature created to hide behind when the lights are bright and the cameras flash and flicker. Channeling all of the vulnerability, rage, frustration, charisma, pain and innocence into a force of nature like performance. Once de Armas shows up after the heartbreaking opening sequence on a younger Norma and her abusive mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), she commands the viewers attention and respect for taking on such an objectifying role.
For as much as Dominik fetishizes the mental, verbal and physical abuse of Norma Jeane, he loves exposing her body, putting her in uncomfortable situation after another in a degrading manner that last’s way longer than it should. On the other side, de Armas visually captures what makes Marilyn endearing – Dominik recreates several of Monroe’s iconic shots from photos to the look of Marilyn to the subway grate dress scene.
Blonde is certainly a divisive film, one that will stir up debates and opinions for years to come. Looking at the good within, Ana de Armas brings nuance to every moment as Marilyn. In a fictionalized story, the verisimilitude throughout makes sense to the horrific events that take place over the course of Norma’s life. It’s harrowing and brutal and an over glorification of sexual abuse for the sake exposing the type of behavior toward women from men in power. Covering your eyes or fast-forwarding through moments should be an option when preparing yourself for an excruciating time with Blonde.
The story of Norma Jeane is heartbreakingly tragic, at least how Dominik paints it. There is no hope for the hopeless nor is there a happy ending, a sense of inspiration to pass on to the next generation. It’s a one time watch but Norma’s spirit endured no matter how many times she broke at the hands of men. As a Netflix released film, Blonde will be another on the release slate to be forgotten it exists, here one minute, gone the next.
Screenplay By: Andrew Dominik
Directed By: Andrew Dominik
Music By: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Cinematography: Chayse Irvin
Starring: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson, Evan Williams, Toby Huss
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: September 28, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 46 Minuets
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 50%
Based On: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates