Most biopics about Hollywood icons follow a traditional rise and fall story arc, as we witness the meteoric rise of a star, their inevitable fall, and a cathartic moment of salvation and redemption. With his bold new film “Blonde,” based on the Joyce Carol Oates fictional novel of the same name about the life of Marilyn Monroe, Andrew Dominik completely subverts this storytelling trope by creating an arthouse, surrealistic horror film on an epic scale. “Blonde” has been criticized by some for its lack of a traditional plot and no moments of catharsis, but Dominik is more interested in revealing the tragedy of Monroe’s life than in creating an audience pleasing spectacle. With its foreboding black and white cinematography, “Blonde” is presented almost like a funeral dirge, as Dominik shows us the horrifying ways that the callous Hollywood studio system exploited and ultimately killed Monroe.

Although it is for the most part told in chronological order, as Dominik follows Monroe’s life from her turbulent childhood, onto her successful film career, and through her various troubled relationships with men, “Blonde” is presented in an impressionistic, sometimes dream-like manner. As played by Ana de Armas in a powerful performance, Monroe is a highly intelligent, independent woman who was also haunted by unresolved childhood conflicts with her abusive mother (Julianne Nicholson) and absent father (Tygh Runyan), which led her to pursue problematic relationships with controlling men. The main men in Monroe’s life that “Blonde” focuses on are Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), Edward G. “Eddy” Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), and President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). Each of these men used Monroe to fulfill their ideal depictions of femininity, and ultimately controlled and destroyed Monroe’s life in their own ways.

What is most interesting about Dominik’s vision of Monroe’s life is that he portrays it as a sort of horror film, which is established with the claustrophobic opening scenes of Monroe’s childhood with her mentally unstable and physically violent mother, who essentially imprisons Monroe and at one point even tries to kill her. These scenes are shot at nighttime in tightly enclosed locations, with an eerie and disturbing soundtrack, and recall the similarly unsettling mother-daughter storyline from Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” Once Monroe is on her own as an adult, Dominik encloses her character in similarly oppressive settings and relationships with the various abusive men in her life. No matter how much she tries to free herself from her disturbing childhood, from changing her real name of Norma Jean to her screen persona of Marilyn Monroe, to seeking refuge in seemingly protective substitute father figures, Monroe is never truly able to escape the tyrannical grip of her mother.

In most horror films, the villains appear in the form of homicidal killers, ghastly beasts, or demonic beings, but in “Blonde” the monsters are the various domineering men who controlled Monroe’s life, and the Hollywood studio system and wider society which exploited Monroe’s troubled past to turn her into a sex icon. At one point in the film, after Monroe has suffered a nervous breakdown, her handlers ply her with drugs to transform her into the beloved screen icon that her audiences want to see. Dominik reveals how this iconic image of Monroe as a sex goddess was predicated on male fantasies of the ideal woman, which essentially reduced Monroe to nothing more than an alluring porn star. This is revealed in one of the most controversial scenes in “Blonde,” when Dominik shows Monroe being forced to have sex with President Kennedy; we see this sex act being performed on a huge screen in a theater filled with Monroe’s admiring fans. What Dominik is ultimately trying to reveal is how Monroe’s Hollywood career was defined by her degradation as a sex object, almost as if she were a prostitute. When we first see Monroe with DiMaggio, she is framed in a medium shot staring directly at the camera, resembling the similar shot of Anna Karina as a prostitute meeting one of her johns in a café in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Vivre sa vie.” Like Karina’s character, Monroe is depicted as a woman whose identity was inextricably linked to her role as an object of desire to men. Early in the film, Dominik shows how Monroe gets her first big break in Hollywood only after being sexually assaulted by a studio president.

Dominik further alludes to this troubling aspect of Monroe’s Hollywood career in a behind the scenes look at the iconic dress blowing sequence from “The Seven Year Itch.” As Monroe stands over a street grille while steam blows up from it to lift up her skirt, a large crowd of male onlookers gawk and make catcalls at her, while her disapproving husband DiMaggio looks on. Throughout “Blonde,” Dominik continuously highlights this voyeuristic, strip show nature of Monroe’s image, as we see scenes of men with distorted faces leering at Monroe like wild animals about to capture their prey.

The only hints of tranquility in Monroe’s life are revealed in the brief ménage à trois she has with Chaplin Jr. and Robinson Jr. (which ends in a cruel twist of fate), and her marriage to Arthur Miller, a gentle presence in her life who admired Monroe’s more artistic side. But Dominik shows how even with the compassionate and caring Miller, Monroe was never able to reveal her true nature. In the end, Miller viewed Monroe as a sort of idealized version of a good housewife, whose main purpose was to help him entertain and serve his guests and take care of his domestic needs as a husband.

The last act of “Blonde” owes a great debt to David Lynch, as Monroe’s ultimate downfall is depicted in a horrifyingly surreal manner that recalls the harrowing last segments of Lynch’s films “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” and “Mulholland Drive.” Like those two films, Monroe is presented as an almost ethereal woman who is continuously abused by and taken advantage of by a cruel and indifferent world, leading to her untimely demise. The unsettling yet melodic music in the last act of “Blonde” resembles Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive” theme songs, perfectly replicating Monroe’s agitated state of mind. Also like Lynch, Dominik portrays Monroe’s life through a sort of dream-logic, oftentimes blurring the boundaries between waking life and the realm of dreams. “Blonde” opens with Monroe as a child, as her mother gently puts her to sleep, and ends with Monroe also asleep, but this time alone as an adult, trapped in a horrifying nightmare which she never wakes up from. These bookends suggest that perhaps what the viewer is witnessing is either a sort of dream prophecy of Monroe as a child, dreaming about her future life, or Monroe as an adult having an extended dream/nightmare or flashback vision about her life before she ultimately passes away in her sleep.

Throughout “Blonde,” there are hints that the narrative takes place in Monroe’s dream-state, as evidenced by various instances where the screen fades to black, and we hear voices telling Monroe to wake up. At one point in the climax of the film, as she is in the most chilling depths of her nightmare world, we hear Monroe continuously trying to assuage her torment by repeating to herself that she’s only dreaming. In another scene, when Monroe is asleep on an airplane, she wakes up to find herself in a theater with a large crowd of her fans watching one of her films. Another notable dream reference is Monroe’s tendency to refer to her various lovers as “daddy,” as if she was trying to invoke the presence of her missing father to appear in her dreams. Because the narrative of “Blonde” seemingly takes place in what resembles an extended dream sequence by Monroe, many of the characters and situations she finds herself in are not in fact direct recreations of her true life story; instead, they are the vague and distorted dream memories of a troubled woman. Hollywood itself has always been known as a sort of dream factory, manufacturing escapist fantasies for audiences to get lost in, but in the case of Monroe, the dream of male fantasy fulfillment she offered turned into an endless nightmare for herself. This metaphorical prison was one Monroe longed to escape from, as revealed in the many scenes where Monroe yearns for a normal life apart from her Hollywood screen icon career. One of the wishes Monroe envisions for herself in “Blonde” is her desire to be the mother to her own child, and in doing so make up for her troubled relationship with her own mentally unstable mother.

This brings us to the controversial topic of abortion, and the erroneous accusations by many of Dominik somehow using “Blonde” as a pro-choice propaganda film. Monroe is depicted as having an illegal abortion in the film, and when she does so she becomes haunted by visions of the unborn fetus she got rid of. Just because Dominik shows Monroe interacting with the fetus of her aborted child and feeling guilt for it doesn’t mean that he is saying abortion is something that should be outlawed. Instead, Dominik is revealing Monroe’s conflicted desire to both be the mother to her own child, while also acknowledging her hesitancy to bring a child into a world where the child could potentially inherit her mother’s mental illness. If Dominik was indeed against abortion, he wouldn’t have the scene of Monroe asking a doctor if her mother’s disease could be genetically inherited. For Dominik, the abortion was both a tragic event for Monroe, while also being justified to ensure that her own child wouldn’t inherit her mother’s disorder.

Like Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Monroe in “Blonde” is the recipient of unrelenting punishment by imperious men. The power of “Blonde” is that it presents an unflinching and caustic portrait of the male-dominated, inhumane Hollywood studio system and wider culture that entrapped Monroe, a system that still exists to some extent in modern times, albeit with stronger measures in place to fight back against this injustice. During the time period Monroe lived in, there were very minimal support groups or organized movements to confront the predatory men who systematically subjugated women, so by uncovering the extent to which Monroe was abused by the system, Dominik is revealing the harsh reality of her life and career.

By using a non-traditional, dream-like narrative structure to examine societal decay, Dominik is working much in the tradition of Japanese Art Theater Guild filmmakers like Kiju Yoshida and Akio Jissoji, who in films like “Heroic Purgatory” and “This Transient Life” broke apart traditional film narrative to confront problematic aspects of Japanese society. Some have criticized “Blonde” for focusing too much on the pain and trauma Monroe experienced, and offering no respite from her constant torment. Monroe never had the chance to fully extricate herself from her tragic life, so it would be disingenuous for Dominik to manufacture scenarios of false optimism for her. Since she experienced a lifetime of abuse at the hands of powerful men, we as an audience owe it to Monroe’s memory to bear witness to and acknowledge her troubled life over the span of just three hours, and hopefully not repeat this pattern for future generations.

  • Film Review: Blonde