Venice 2022: 'Blonde' is a Dream-Like Journey into Misogynist Hell
by Alex Billington
September 10, 2022
Everyone already knows the story of Marilyn Monroe – the 1950s sex icon, blonde bombshell goddess, beloved movie star. But do we really know the real story? Do we really understand all that she went through, all that she was and wasn't, all that she suffered? Of course, this is a taboo topic – don't you dare shame the magnificent beauty that is Marilyn Monroe, she owned that beauty and no one can take that away from her!! Though really, maybe it's something we should be talking about, maybe we should be looking more into her experiences. Monroe lived through a time in which women were objectified, treated as meat, and given little to no freedom to do what they wanted unless men approved of it. This is true regardless of how things look in retrospect all these years later. Blonde is New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik's first feature film in 10 years (since Killing Them Softly), telling the life story of Norma Jeane. But let's make sure this is clear - this is a work of fiction and doesn't accurately represent her life or experiences. It's just a film, don't forget.
Blonde is both written and directed by Andrew Dominik, adapted from the well-known novel by Joyce Carol Oates. He sticks closely to what's in the book, with voiceovers from Norma Jeane herself as commentary on her life and experiences as if we're inside her diary. I joked before my screening at the Venice Film Festival that I was watching "The Assassination of Norma Jane by the Glamorous Marilyn Monroe" (a reference to Dominik's masterpiece from 2007) but actually this is a fairly accurate title for this film. There are layers upon layers of what Monroe is experiencing as this blonde "sex icon", while trying to hold onto the little bit of herself, Norma Jeane, that might be left as she gets more and more famous. The film features various moments from Jeane's life, including her childhood as well as her early years in the business, plus moments at home and many relationships with various men. Part of the magic of the film is the dream-like quality of it: shifting aspect ratios, alternating between black & white and color, all with soft focus cinematography. We are indeed, as the audience, looking back on her life as if it was a dream, but we're also experiencing her life as she might've lived it - everything happening magically to her before she could even make sense of it.
Dominik's interpretation of her life is a bit brutal and harsh, but in all honesty, this might be the truth that we're all afraid to hear or believe in. She lived a life where most of the men around her treated her like dirt. There is plenty of rape and abuse, unfortunately, and a general sense of "I don't know how I got here." Most of it the result of an absent father and a mother who later ended up in a mental institution. Dominik very meticulous and intimately takes us into the story of Jeane's life by drifting through moments with cuts that take us right into the next scary part of her story. This adds a layer of meta experience for us, as the viewer, because Jeane herself talks about how she often doesn't know how she ended up in these places, and neither do we as the viewer. Next thing we know she's in someone's office, or on some movie set. Then it cuts and she's emerging from a car with hundreds of flashbulbs exploding as she walks down the red carpet into her next premiere. They adore her, but she doesn't quite understand why. Sadly, it seems misogyny and sexual power and objectification have the greatest influence on her – but she doesn't have control over any of this.
The key to this being an extraordinary, riveting film is the performance by Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe / Norma Jeane. She is phenomenal and absolutely transforms into Norma, with the perfect voice and mannerisms and everything. Thankfully she's not trying to imitate or replicate Monroe by copying her, but she gives her own breathtaking, awe-inspiring performance that becomes something else entirely. I've read theories that Dominik's film is such a meta experience that Ana de Armas is commenting on her own experience of playing the role of Norma Jeane who is also playing the role of Marilyn Monroe. But this seems to be over-analysis, Ana de Armas deserves to be praised because she is absolutely perfect handling this role. It is not easy to be not only delicate and tender and sensual, but also to command her sexuality opposite of men of all shapes and sizes. And here she does this with grace, but also takes us on the journey through hell that Monroe must've gone through living as this blonde bombshell that every last man wanted to get their hands on. As we all know, eventually it ruined her and the pain became overwhelming.
Over the last few years, I've been grumbling about how there's so little innovation in cinema nowadays… Not only in terms of technical filmmaking, but it's rare to see something unique in storytelling either. And yet here Dominik comes along and drops off this remarkable film that actually tries to innovate and rethink and challenge cinema with an astounding one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. It may not top The Assassination of Jesse James (and to be fair it's entirely different experience) but it does use the language of cinema in clever, expressive, astoundingly artistic ways while intertwining all of this within its narrative that questions whether Monroe really had any control over her life as "Marilyn Monroe." I know plenty of people will hate Blonde… It's the kind of film that dares to say, hey your perfect image of this person you never knew isn't actually that perfect, because the truth (supposedly) is much scarier, darker, and more fucked up than you will ever believe. It may not be the complete truth, but it's close enough. Close enough to shock us, scare us, and make us wonder why men have treated women like this and if we've changed or not. Maybe we haven't? Putting us in Jeane's shoes, walking with her on this journey into misogynistic hell, should shake us all up.
Part of the meta brilliance of Blonde is the way Dominik allows us, the audience, to consciously participate in this act of leering at her – naked and vulnerable – interjecting ourselves into Jeane's life whether she likes it or not. If you're uncomfortable watching so many of these scenes, for whatever reason, that's because we need to start acknowledging the reality of this discomfort – and how it connects to sexism and misogyny and chauvinism and objectification of women. And how all of this played a major part in Marilyn Monroe's creation and idolization. She's not the perfect icon that history has made her out to be, and this is a film that beautifully shows how irrefutably true that is. It's not a sugar-coated biopic – it's the nightmare of her life.