In the Dark
This article appeared in the September 22, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Blonde (Andrew Dominik, 2022)
Whatever genius Andrew Dominik’s much-ballyhooed Blonde possesses has little to do with the genius of Marilyn Monroe. It has even less to do with Norma Jeane, which was Marilyn’s given name, and a persona that the film and its enormous, moving, Joyce Carol Oates–authored source novel claim as icon-Marilyn’s tortured, tragedy-prone, flesh-and-blood counterpart. The skill being flaunted here is all Dominik’s, and, channeled through Ana de Armas’s extraordinary impersonation (her vocal imitation is especially uncanny), it is sometimes breathtaking in its granular recreation of images from the real-world Marilyn picture book. Which is odd indeed, considering that both Oates and Dominik insist their Blondes must be read as pure fiction.
Just look at de Armas canoodling with Adrien Brody over a fence in an exact replica of that famous photo of Marilyn and Arthur Miller, down to the light through her hair and stripe of his shirt, the color of the flowers and the design of her pale-blue polka-dot dress. Gaze at Marilyn/Norma/Ana lying naked in a tangle of rumpled bedclothes just like Monroe did in that Bert Stern photo shoot six weeks before her death. See if you can clock the precise moment when a scene of de Armas frolicking on the beach in an oversize cardigan aligns with the well-known picture of Marilyn doing the very same thing. Blonde’s chief achievement is in giving us a hundred consummately imagined visions of everything we already know about Marilyn Monroe and have no need to imagine.
Dominik’s film is a technical marvel, but it’s cold and not a little sinister. It’s also an utterly heartless hoodwink. The deepfake insertion of de Armas into scenes from All About Eve and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is creepy—how can a movie purportedly honoring Monroe justify literally erasing and overwriting her actual performances?—and the decision to recreate the final shot of Some Like It Hot with different actors, with Marilyn not even in the frame, is just plain weird. But even more ghoulish is the use to which all this gimmicky mimicry is put: to decorate and remythologize a narrative of unalloyed victimization, exploitation, and ceaseless, ceaseless tears, in which even Marilyn’s sunniest moments seem to anticipate her foregone tragic fate.
There are flashbacks to Norma Jeane as a fatherless child (Lily Fisher), living with her dangerously unstable and abusive mother (Julianne Nicholson). There is a casting-couch rape scene, and another in which a bleary, barbiturated Marilyn is forced to give JFK a blow job. We can date the latter interlude precisely to February 1962, because the priapic Prez appears to be watching the Friendship 7 rocket launch on TV while Marilyn bobs up and down on the First Member, praying in voiceover that she won’t gag or puke. And that’s not even this flailing, lachrymose movie’s nadir of tastelessness. That comes during one of the conversations Marilyn has with her unborn baby, when, apparently channeling the never-child of a previous, deeply regretted abortion, the grotesque CG fetus talks back, asking in kid-Norma’s voice, “Why did you kill me last time?” This scene might be even queasier than Monroe’s insistence on calling all her lovers “Daddy,” and that’s saying something, because Blonde is to the ickily Freudian use of that word what Goodfellas is to “fuck.”
The movie is so entranced by how much de Armas can look like Monroe that it forgets she is also a very fine actress, capable of expressing what her character might have thought or felt in more nuanced ways than just modulating the glisten of her eyes as though her tear ducts were fitted with a flow valve. There is a solitary scene in which Norma gets to show some agency, where she ends a phone call to a studio rep with “Fuck you! And fuck ‘Marilyn Monroe’!” Everything else is merely Marilyn/Norma actually being fucked, and fucked over. All she does is absorb blows and flashbulb pops, and submit to the leering, occasionally CG-enhanced clamor of a carnivorous public. All she wants is love; all she finds is its spear tip, desire, and all she can do is die slowly, by a thousand cuts. Everything is external: Blonde doesn’t care enough for Marilyn to bother thinking its way into her head—though it does, with quite staggeringly unjustified vulgarity, literally place itself inside her vagina from time to time.
Catastrophically misjudged, tacitly anti-choice gynecological episodes aside, the film’s problems are far more foundational. In retrospect, the decision to realize a fiction—because Blonde is not to be taken for biography in any standards-of-truth sense—by frequent reference to the actual photographic record is a bizarre one. Who is this movie for, exactly? Those who don’t know their Marilyn iconography inside out are surely going to be irritated by the seemingly unmotivated shifts from color to black and white; from hazy, gauzy filters to high-contrast Technicolor; from boxy aspect ratios to widescreen and back again. Sometimes these flourishes are meant to replicate an existing image, and sometimes they’re just stylistic indulgences, but for the Marilyn-agnostic they must look mostly like a mess.
Meanwhile, those of us who do recognize the visual homages spend the whole runtime wondering when the next conflation between the Marilyn of public record and the de Armas of Blonde is going to occur—and also, when it does, where the photographers are meant to be. D.P. Chayse Irvin’s camera does such a good job of mimicking the compositions and angles of those original photos that the effect is to erase their framing altogether and put us inside them. So in the aforementioned Monroe/Miller/fence scene, or with the cardigan/beach shot, or during a sequence that recreates a picture of Marilyn and her previous husband Joe DiMaggio (a miscast Bobby Cannavale) sitting by a window, it’s unclear if we are supposed to understand that there’s a photo shoot going on, with Marilyn performing for the camera, or if these scenes are meant as candid little slices of Monroe’s life. This confusion is surely intentional, but the inference—that the private Marilyn looked and behaved a lot like the public, photo-icon Marilyn—deals a death blow to the idea that Blonde is about the woman behind the image, or in the film’s vernacular, the Norma Jeane behind the Marilyn Monroe. For the Marilyn aficionado, there is only image here, no insight.
Whenever we revisit Monroe, in whatever format, someone will insist that the motive is reclamation. We want to bring her presumptively restless, unhappy spirit back home again after decades of glittering but lonely exile in that faraway section of the Hollywood firmament reserved for its most tragic stars. As a result, each new Monroe movie is positioned as an act of rescue—a word Dominik himself has used in promoting his film—and of reconciliation between a troubled, lonely woman and the carefree pinup image she projected. But if that is Dominik’s Blonde ambition, it is a spectacular failure: the legend blazes on while the real woman—who cried, no doubt, but also thought and fought and planned and achieved—is pushed further than ever into obscurity.
“How do you find your way back in the dark?” It is so poignant it’s almost corny that these are the last words Marilyn Monroe ever said in a completed film. At the end of The Misfits (which, like many of the most resonant episodes in both Monroe’s life and Oates’s book, Dominik ignores), she takes hold of Clark Gable’s hand, looks out into the night, and delivers that line in her powdery, little-girl voice. For a moment it’s hard not to hear, inside the character, the actress herself petitioning posterity for a measure of protection, of understanding, of guidance home. As Roslyn in The Misfits, she gets it, but Blonde offers her no way out of the dark.
Jessica Kiang is a freelance critic with regular bylines in Variety, Sight and Sound, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone, and is the international programmer for the Belfast Film Festival.