Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

Blonde (Film Review)

7 min read

is the much-anticipated and long-awaited new film from . He started developing it as early as 2010. The film is based on Joyce Carol Oates' 2000 novel, which is a fictionalised account of 's life. It is not a biography by any means, nor is the film. There was an earlier TV adaptation soon after the novel's publication from director Joyce Chopra, but that version told the story in a very sanitized and traditional fashion for network TV.

Blonde has faced much controversy, from the casting of as Monroe to the brutality depicted, as well as some of Dominik's creative choices. To really understand what he's doing, you have to understand that he is using Monroe's story to take a hellish dreamscape look at the perils of celebrity. It's first and foremost a horror, with more in common with Roman Polanski's Repulsion or the work of David Lynch (specifically Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) than, for example, Richard Attenborough's Chaplin. Blonde's inventiveness with what constitutes a “biopic” even outdoes Baz Luhrmann's recent Elvis, which despite its phantasmagorical visuals, serves up the rise and fall of the poor white boy from Tupelo with the rigour of classical Hollywood storytelling.

David Lynch actually first met his Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost when they worked on an unmade Marilyn Monroe biopic. That project was inspired by Anthony Summer's best-selling biography Goddess, but the script was titled Venus Descending. They renamed everybody and went down some interesting conspiratorial directions—the script claimed that the character based on Bobby Kennedy murdered Monroe, and when the executives at Warner Bros. heard that, the film was swiftly cancelled. It's widely believed that Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks is loosely inspired by Monroe, so it's interesting that Dominik made what feels very much like the Marilyn film that Lynch would've made, just minus the conspiratorial elements.

One of the things I was surprised about, having been led to believe it was much less linear than it is, is that Blonde more or less tells Monroe's story from her childhood in the greater Los Angeles area to her death under somewhat mysterious circumstances. What's really interesting is the way all scenes, in a more or less linear fashion, are snapshots of her life. One of those, a threesome between Monroe, Charles Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr., is an example of how editing is used to set these up in a very interesting fashion. The scenes are beautifully composed images by cinematographer Chayse Irvin. He normally shoots music video projects, such as Beyoncé's Lemonade, this is one of his few features. Blonde utilises various aspect ratios, switching freely from Academy to Widescreen.

Marilyn, whose real name was Norma Jeane, was from the very beginning a girl surrounded by monsters; from her paranoid-schizophrenic mother, to the ghostly presence of the father she never met. Then on to studio heads and the various men she was romantically involved. Her third and final husband, the playwright Arthur Miller (portrayed by Adrian Brody), comes out fairly unscathed compared to Joe DiMaggio and JFK. The moment where the audience will start to sense this isn't your traditional “biopic” comes very early on, when Monroe's mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) drags little Norma Jeane out of her bed and drives her up into the Hollywood hills while a wildfire that borders on the supernatural is engulfing everything in sight. In a fit of hysteria, her mother is driving up Norma Jeane to try to see her “father,” who was allegedly some movie star from the ‘20s, but you get the sense that this father is a wishful fantasy of her mother's broken mind. Nicholson is astonishing in the role.

Blonde jumps quickly into Monroe's career in Hollywood after a quick montage of her time as a pin-up model, something that will come back to haunt Norma Jeane in more ways than one. One of the most talked-about sequences is the moment Norma becomes Marilyn, which involves a rape by a studio mogul who is clearly modelled on Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck. One of the things Blonde is incredibly successful at is holding up a mirror up to the abuse that pervaded Hollywood, completely condemning it but without some whitewashing veneer of “Oh we've changed, we have intimacy coordinators on set now, look at us aren't we so pro-woman now!” Dominik is telling the audience, and Hollywood, that this went on then, this went on till the very recent past, it's still going on and no, Hollywood, you really haven't changed much despite your posing, and your hypocrisy makes me ill. The iconic shooting of the subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch is portrayed more like the staging of a sex crime than a moment of cheeky comedy.

Near the end there is much talked-about sequence involving Norma and John F. Kennedy. The truth behind what happened between the two of them is unknowable. It's strongly rumoured that they slept together at least once, and certainly JFK's extramarital affairs are the stuff of legend at this point. The sequence involves Marilyn, who is completely out of her mind on pills and booze at this point, essentially being kidnapped by JFK's Secret Service goons and brought to Kennedy's hotel in New York so he can have his way with her. It's hard not to think of the part of the Amy Winehouse documentary where she is clearly unconscious and put onto a plane so she can go “on tour.” JFK is spread out naked except for his corset-like brace, on the phone with one of his advisors while Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is playing on the TV. Casper Phillipson has made a minor career out of playing Kennedy—this is the fourth time this Danish actor has played the former president.

In this scene, Dominik is knocking down this false mythology around JFK that Americans have been fed from a young age, although he was actually one of the most destructive presidents of the modern era. JFK himself was also a media creation, much like Norma Jeane's alter-ego of Marilyn Monroe. The long-standing belief is that he only beat Richard Nixon in 1960 election because he looked better in the televised presidential debate.

Dominik has very little interest in Marilyn's film career. Moments from it are depicted, but more to show Norma Jeane's increasing alienation from the creation that was partly her own but mainly that of the men in power who foisted it on her. With Some Like It Hot, a film that is routinely considered one of the greatest comedies, its premiere is reduced to a Lynchian fast-forward. Only letting it breathe for a moment, then screeching to a halt for the iconic line of “Well, nobody's perfect.” The scenes about the making of Some Like It Hot are horrific, and help move the narrative into its spellbinding but disturbing final act. However, Blonde does acknowledge Monroe's comedic and dramatic chops as an actor: a pivotal scene that comes early on is her audition for the underrated and little-seen B-Noir Don't Bother to Knock, which was one of the rare times that her serious acting ability was ever captured on screen.

In the hands of a less capable director, Blonde could've easily become the exploitative hit piece on Marilyn Monroe that some critics have claimed it is since its premiere in Venice—Joker was less divisive than this! It's unrelenting grimness is anchored by Ana de Armas's truly transformative performance, but also the haunting synths of Dominik's frequent collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The soundtrack compliments the images perfectly, and heightens the fairytale-turned-nightmare that you are witnessing up on the screen. You completely buy de Armas as one of the most photographed people of the 20th Century. There are many moments when you are convinced that it's archival footage of the real Marilyn… twist, it's not. Her Cuban accent may slip through once or twice, but it doesn't matter—like Marilyn, she is an actress you can't take your eyes off. Many Hollywood actresses would be too timid to do what Dominik required de Armas to do, and that's not the much-discussed amount of nudity but her willingness to be so emotionally vulnerable on screen.

has decided to release the Blonde, having helped Dominik finally get it across the finishing line after years of near misses. Those included a version with Naomi Watts and Jessica Chastain (who would've been so wrong), and after seeing it, you get the sense that this may be the last time a director gets one over on the streamer. Netflix was already scaling back on auteur-led works, but Blonde seems like the final nail in the coffin. Dominik's film is a masterpiece that is very rare in American cinema, and like all great films about the American psyche, it had to be made by foreigner. I could've probably lost a few “daddys” when Marilyn is talking to the men in her life, but that's a minor nitpick. There are also things that are left out, but Dominik has a point for these omissions. If you have the opportunity to see it theatrically rush to the cinema because Blonde is made for the big screen.

BLONDE is out September 28th on Netflix, currently playing in select cinemas.