‘Blonde’ Review: Requiem for Norma Jean


As Andrew Dominik has spent the last decade or so working in the documentary trenches, releasing two films about Nick Cave (a collaborator with whom he holds a great deal of professional respect) in between narrative projects, it’s become somewhat easy to forget that the man’s primary focus is deconstruction, at least with his projects set within the United States. Myth, not culture or art or entertainment, is America’s primary export. Dominik’s last three fictional films have each taken shots at centrally-held beliefs, sold at a profit (as is tradition) to the poor huddled masses around the world. Each of these movies faced a struggle, either behind the scenes or after release, to find their audience: exhibitors and executives balked at the runtime of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and mainstream audiences and critics hated every second of Killing Them Softly, His latest film, Blonde, is the whole reason for his absence in the first place, though it’s a masterpiece like the others. It most formally resembles Jesse James, being a nearly three-hour treatise on the nature of fame and infamy, whose visuals are lush and performances within are deeply felt and fully realized, but its acerbic yet sorrowful anger (glimpsed most keenly within the few provocative jabs aimed towards the chins all involved in it, including the viewer) recalls Killing Them Softly, which remains one of the few movies about the ’08 Financial Crisis to get it right. Dominik didn’t even have to use infographics or cameos from famous Australian actors concealed in a bubble bath to get his point across: America is a brutish and ugly place if you’re not wealthy enough to be anesthetized from the suffering, and even then, as in Blonde, it may very well still snatch your soul away, like some believed cameras would do at the advent of photography.

But, to Dominik, lies are an inescapable aspect of storytelling – it’s how and why we lie that gets us closer to some version of the truth. There may be empirical and observable facts at its genesis: the James gang robbed stages, organized crime’s structures resemble that of a company and/or government (by design), and Marilyn Monroe was once a girl named Norma Jean. What matters is how one interprets those facts and gives them meaning. Jesse James was a paranoid and vain cowboy who engineered his martyrdom by grooming a starry-eyed dullard and his brother to be his executioners. Fucking with mob money has consequences, but when you’re high up enough in any number of legalized rackets, you can commit the same acts at a national scale, get away with it, and have both political parties take credit for saving pension funds and savings accounts from you, all while accepting your cash. Norma Jean was ultimately not Marilyn Monroe – she only played her in the pictures – and while her image topped billboards, thrilled crowds, and helped to ignite, along with the Pill, the sexual revolution, Norma suffered miserably. When narrative meets history, the problem is rarely with factual inaccuracy: It’s about whether or not one can craft moving or compelling art with their interpretation of the facts (see something like The Woman King). And on that metric, Dominik’s created something that reduces the leafy laurels gifted by critics to craftsmen of “true fairy tales” like Pablo Larrain into ash-coated twigs, and it is genuinely understandable why so many people have recoiled in horror at this film’s existence.

Blonde is, of course, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which I have not read but understand to be bullshit in the same way that any of Gore Vidal’s biographical novels or Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon are bullshit. That is, they’re works of conjecture comprised of research and rumor, with a sort of goal of understanding how one ant fits into the colony and how the colony’s behavior shapes the tunnels it digs. They’re speculative works, unintentionally given an air of factual legitimacy by the public because they’re about real people. Unless you’re a stylist like Don DeLillo (whose Libra would never be mistaken for “truth,” given how its prose compliments its subject matter), one will be doomed to answer questions about one’s research and why one mauled so-and-so’s life story in order to make some sort of point and just how awful the writer is up until people forget about the work or the author dies. Fact-checking them is worthless. What the film version of Blonde is not is “torture porn” – a sobriquet that, at its christening, referred to a fucking subgenre of horror cinema but has now become a catch-all term for movies that make critics depressed and/or uncomfortable. I imagine that lurid voyeurs attracted to the NC-17 at the top of its Netflix listing or by the crazed ranting of offended parties will be deeply depressed that the film is abstract and surreal, deeply romantic yet horribly bitter, in love with the language of Old Hollywood cinema while apoplectic about the abuse that underwrote all of those pretty images, and also just full of a sad and terrible longing. But it’s here that I should actually warn you that the NC-17 is there for a reason. If you think you might be made upset by any of the content of this film, you should seek out some manner of guidance from a trusted friend or family member who has seen it rather than take the word of a film critic as the endpoint.

A friend pointed out to me the other day that Blonde is a lot like Baz Lurhmann’s Elvis, which similarly examined the role that capital and the public played in the death of, to paraphrase Psychic TV, a Godstar. But Lurhmann’s gaudy maximalism and unreliable narrator have a mitigating effect on the impact of that tragedy (and, I might add, to great effect). In contrast, every emphasis point within Dominik’s style here is to emphasize Norma’s personhood. This was always going to be an uphill battle for Dominik, given that both abstract socioeconomic-centric political criticism and long-dead outlaws never managed to top-line a host of iconic films. In Ana de Armas, however, he’s found a collaborator willing to help lead the charge. She is wonderfully ill-suited for a traditional biopic of Monroe, but for a film about Norma, she is the ideal lead. Her ferocity – the depths of her focus, the sheer committal to the project’s ideals – and her skill at deploying a blunt-force emotionalism grounds the project in recognizable human feeling, which gives a deep warmth to a project that could have been particularly chilly had, say, Naomi Watts or Jessica Chastain had starred in it. It is through her work that Dominik’s gorgeous imagery derives its potent meaning, be it his soft-focus emphasis on her trimming blossoms in the middle of her garden, losing her cool at Billy Wilder on the set of Some Like It Hot, or enduring a horrible visit with her estranged mother at the asylum the old woman’s been committed to. It’s also important to remember that this film is a tragedy, with Aristotle’s idea of the “good man” being changed into an open-hearted and intelligent soul in need of a certain kind of affection, only to be brought low in her quest to find a long-sought requited and reciprocal love, hinted at to her since she was a child, and to be confronted with the possibility that it very well might not exist, for her.

This missing connection comes in the form of her absent father, whose alleged picture – a handsome man with a well-trimmed mustache, dressed in a hat and overcoat, whose slight smirk is resembles an enigmatic Mona Lisa  – her mother displays over her childhood bed, whose name she can never divulge to her daughter. It is clear to her, even as a child, that her mother is unwell, but she finds the possibility of life without the absence of that hope unbearable (as would we all, given that the kindly lady next door, after telling her that her mother’s well enough to see her and that she should pack her things, takes her straight on to the orphanage) and clings to it as a truth. Some of Oates’ most famous works, such as “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (which itself was adapted into Smooth Talk in 1985 by Joyce Chopra), are defined by the kind of predatory masculine presence that crawls its way into that gaping wound, and Blonde is no exception. The Juniors are its earliest expression – the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edgar G. Robinson – whose menage a trois-centric relationship with Norma acts as a form of, to paraphrase Nabokov, the Old Hollywood coming in disguise to pervert the new. This perversion takes a more subtle yet equivalently ugly form, both like and unlike her abuse at the hands of studio heads, who see her as a product meant for their consumption, willing or otherwise, and exploitation. Norma’s enamored with Chaplin (whose father’s visage haunted the apartment she grew up in, his beaming face on a tattered City Lights poster is given a devilish irony once Norma’s mother lights the place ablaze, and it is consumed along with the walls), whose relationship with his father, itself defined by its absence, has left him an alcoholic shell of a human being, capable of a passing imitation of life and love made all the worse by the reality of its falsity, and their relationship will ultimately shape her life.

Her later husbands, as well, are famous men, but are shaped by their accomplishments: Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) with his success on the diamond, and Arthur Miller (a genuinely lovely Adrian Brody) with his award-winning stage plays. Both initially underestimate her, with DiMaggio’s inability to get over his image of his wife as waif and pet after successive revelations shatter that she had a life even before she first flickered to the screen and by her continued agency. Yet Miller’s resistance to her, after a patronizing dinner conversation, gives way to his realization that she is just as smart and capable as he is but gifted with a different set of talents. He comes as close to understanding her as anyone can, offering her a kind of love that she believes she’s not worthy or capable of. That absence-abscess has festered for so long enough that it has manifested in all-consuming anxiety, and her fears are given real validation – at least from her perspective – by an accident she has on a beach, which collapses the marriage and puts her on the path to a kind of tragic martyrdom. By ’62, she’s being used as a plaything, flown in a booze-and-pills haze cross-country, and discreetly carted off and carried by the Secret Service to classy hotel rooms so that she may “serve” for the President’s pleasure. The encounter, as filmed here, is free of any of the gloss that hypothetical imaging of a Monroe/Kennedy affair as it is normally depicted: sad fellatio, performed by an unwilling participant, as Kennedy, clothed in a girdle to help his aching back, reclines and talks on the phone about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as flying saucers decimate Washington on the Movie-of-the-Week, on mute in the background. This is the height of fame, and the entanglement isn’t worth the way it exacerbates her paranoia.

It’s in that final half-hour that things fully fall apart for Norma, after her short-lived encounter with JFK, and where Dominik takes us into a world of hideously terrifying night-vision landscapes. As Monroe wanders around her apartment one night, having risen from bed because of her barking dog, she becomes aware that there are men in her house – in fact, there’s one standing right against the wall next to her bed, concealed by darkness. This is a particularly Lynchian expression of suspenseful terror – the unaware person caught with the physical manifestation of an abstract system lurching behind them – but, unlike the other filmmakers whose works Dominik draws from (say, Noe and the hints of other New Extremity filmmakers), it’s Lynch’s deep empathy for his subjects and his skilled way of putting us, through incongruity and abstraction, into their frame of mind, no matter how vague it may get. It’s telling that despite the allusions to films like Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and even Twin Peaks, the greatest (and most obvious) single-shot reference to a Lynch film in Blonde is one evoking the ending of The Elephant Man. In a way, it can be looked as a variation on that classic: both films are about how one’s visage can obscure the soul within. Both are romantic tragedies, though Dominik’s is significantly sourer. While Joseph Merrick is able to prove himself as a man and not an animal or test subject to at least a few people, Norma is so defined by the glamor of Marilyn that only a few people can look past her beauty, past the tyrannical image, to see the person within and the love she so deeply craved, both with emotional handicaps caused by their childhoods that they could never quite transcend.

It’s in her death, following a final insult, that Dominik finds a single image to articulate his thesis amidst an assortment of shots that would have all proved to be a perfect capstone for the film. It’s a juxtaposed shot of Norma’s corpse, laid out on the bed growing stiff, with Marilyn curling into a pillow, as lively as ever. This beautiful ghostly image will haunt culture for as long as memory allows it to. These images are part-and-parcel with the few that so many have objected to, which are criticisms that feel ridiculous provided one’s watched Spencer, Pablo Larrain’s Diana picture, which featured as much bullshit perfume commercial glitter for every ounce of substance it lacked. It boggles the mind how some critics can rubber-stamp depictions of fictionalized crown conspiracies and Diana’s hallucinatory ghost visitations but get angry at the idea that a pregnant mother might imagine herself talking to her child in utero or the imagery that Dominik uses in his depictions of Norma’s abortions and the subsequent guilt she feels at being coerced into getting the first. I don’t think he’s concerned much with the politics of it in the United States as much as he is concerned with how the whole of these situations alter Norma. The circumstances with which she receives them are both deplorable enough to transcend an easy binary and plausible enough to be used as ammunition for either side of the debate.

More importantly, however, is how these horrific scenes fit into the film. There’s a central undercurrent within Blonde about the lack of autonomy in her life (which is not to say that she is helpless), be it bodily or otherwise, that proves potent. Her relationship with her mother is abusive, and the parent wields her power over her child in unpredictable, chaotic, and violent ways: she is obviously vulnerable. Then there’s Hollywood, full of lecherous and controlling men (and their sons), looking to make an eager buck off of her beauty and talent, provided she maintains that kind of unattainable perfection on and off screen. There are her marriages, which occasionally approach parity but are undone by emotion and circumstance. And then there’s her role as a state secret, where she is nothing more than an object to be carted about and disposed of when necessary. The first begets the rest – Norma Jean wishes to be loved, but does not believe she can be as herself, so she creates Marilyn, a fake blonde made of a thousand dreams, exclusively existing in stills and on celluloid. But Marilyn soon overtakes her and proves impossible for her to separate from. Even in death, she lives on, free of the inconvenience of the woman she grew out of, an eternal daughter, ripe for licensing purposes, always on call to serve her fans.

It’s in this that Dominik does something that very few films, outside of documentaries, at least, attempt for fear of alienating a crowd, much less film critics, who can handle being implicated in bad shit or insulted provided they’re insulated in stereotype or absolved as one of “the good ones.” This is, perhaps, the benefit of the Netflix strategy, in some ways, because most will never know how many folks turn off the film in disgust at whatever point repels the during the runtime – you’ll never know how many people hated your film (however, it’s not like Dominik cares much after Killing Them Softly). Freed of receipts, he’s able to fully implicate all of the Hollywood system in this destruction, which absolutely includes its consumers. We contributed to this, and even if her life was one-tenth as cruel as depicted on screen here, what resulted wasn’t worth our perpetuation of her suffering. Our insatiable desire for her – the throngs of men turning their heads every time she walks through a room or bellowing and wolf-whistling on the set of The Seven-Year Itch or at the premiere of Some Like It Hot, warped by pills and booze into over-exaggerated mouths attached to heads – has not hit its peak. Nor are women innocent, as well: as a costumer tells her, she’s cruel for complaining when she has the life that every single woman wants, with the idea that her life might not be ideal at all never occurring to the woman. Blonde is, of course, perpetuating that story as well, but with cognizance that it is counter-narrative: to Andy Warhol, to My Week with Marilyn, to every photo of her in every diner across the country. And I’m not even trying to suggest that this is how she should be defined in popular media – her iconic presence is too cemented in culture to be changed in a meaningful way – but rather that the perspective of one film shouldn’t be less valuable because it runs counter to expectation.

But, alas, the image retains its power. These three thousand-odd words will only add to the pile of discourse that will only end whenever a legacy director says something less-than-flattering about Marvel to a journalist. The guilt Blonde inspires, the cognizance of the person behind the image, however, will linger. To paraphrase an infamous quote that Marilyn once was said to have said, since repeated every digitally-rotted macro-pixel meme shared across the internet by someone wishing to emulate her on-screen brassy confidence, if one couldn’t handle her at her worst, they didn’t deserve her at her best. And this, ultimately, was true: We could not handle her at her worst, and we demanded, demand, and will demand her best, and god damn any one who tries to curtail our fantasies or attempt to understand them in their contradictions.