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When Facts Fade to Blonde
The artistic potency of Andrew Dominik's atomic bombshell.
Reading Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, The Decay of Lying, with Andrew Dominik’s Blonde and all the vitriolic reactions it incited in mind, is like drinking a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade in the middle of Death Valley. The resonance is as remarkable as it is natural, for the film weaves fact and fiction together into a chaotic tapestry to tell a very specific story.
Dominik’s film is based on a biographical fiction of beloved American pop icon Marilyn Monroe, and conducts history to the tune of its own artistic interpretation of Monroe’s private life as Norma Jeane, played by Ana de Armas.
His use of artistic license, even though it’s been provided by Joyce Carol Oates’s book, has been condemned across the board ever since the film’s world premiere in Venice and, a few weeks later, on Netflix. Even de Armas has been scathed.
Both the film and its reactions to it are fascinating, and the following essay is my attempt at unpacking it all. With a little help from Mr. Wilde.1
Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life.
Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is a beautiful nightmare. Running at an intimidating 2 hours and 46 minutes, the film is a fragmented and disjointed descent into the abyss that is Norma Jeane’s psyche. From a traumatic childhood, through her rise to fame as Marilyn Monroe on the shoulders of a misogynistic industry, all the way to her heartbreaking, self-destructive end, Norma’s journey is a near-lethal overdose of pain to sit through.
In the hands of Dominik and Ana de Armas, it’s also undeniably beautiful.
De Armas’s committed performance is a supernova in an oversaturated universe of Hollywood stars; she comes as close to exposing a soul of a character as anyone I’ve recently seen on screen. Complimenting her performance is Dominik’s methodical madness and crazed-conductor-like direction. It’s designed with purpose to have the contour and content of an rorschach inkblot; an elliptical, plotless, psychological biography of Norma Jeane’s emotions and state of mind behind the Marilyn Monroe mask. The darkness beneath the glitter.
Speaking of glitter, the film is also the prettiest looking work of art of the year so far. Of the handful of genius decisions contributing to this powerful beauty, the painstakingly detailed recreation of scenes from real-life Marilyn Monroe photographs has to be at the top. That idea, and its phantasmagorical execution by DP Chayse Irvin and Production Designer Florencia Martin, elevates the biographical fiction genre to brand new cinematic heights.
In Blonde, life not only imitates art - life serves art.
Art’s rough material.
Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art's rough material, but before they are of any real service to Art they must be translated into artistic conventions.
As someone who has barely scratched the surface of Monroe’s filmography (I’ve seen Some Like it Hot numerous times, and The Asphalt Jungle a long time ago, but that’s about it) and knows even less about her personal history, I count myself among the majority of people on this planet who know of Marilyn Monroe mostly from photos (be they from photoshoots or film stills) and a general notion of how tragic her life must have been since it ended in apparent suicide in 1962, when she was just 36 years old. Those two points of reference are anchored in my mind by the ingrained knowledge of her larger-than-life fame.
So the head-tilting “wait a minute!” deja-vu moments when recognizing images of Marilyn Monroe, through my own thickly-veiled memory, while watching Blonde was an experience unlike any other I’ve had with a movie. Like some bizarre psychoanalytical association test, the film seamlessly weaves snapshots of reality into its fabric of contextual fiction to evoke more supercharged, emotional urgency.
Whether it’s the most mundane, everyday life images of her sitting on the floor in a pink dress or lying on the couch reading a magazine, or the most iconic of all - the subway dress scene from The Seven Year Itch - the effect was like a spell that pulled me deeper into the film’s story, made me sympathize with Norma Jeane even more, and added texture to the human being behind the celebrity. It didn’t matter if the context Dominik and his crew built around these images was based on real-life history. They were crafted and performed so exquisitely, they transcended the fact or fiction question.
Its exquisite craftsmanship is a big part of the reason the film still haunts me even after two weeks have passed since I’ve seen it. Many of my thoughts inevitably fade to Blonde, albeit quite darkly. It is undoubtedly difficult to reconcile my gradual love of the film with the torrent of cruelty - physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual - that is on display.
Dominik goes hard. Child abuse, rape, abortion (twice), wife-beating, miscarriage. And those are just the stomach-turning scenes that make you recoil, cringe and wince in horror. There’s a whole layer of objectification, sexism and misogyny endured by Norma, and then another layer of the same prejudice endured by Marilyn underneath that one. Accentuating all of this are Dominik and de Armas, who don’t flinch, cut corners or soften any blows in how they respectively present and portray Norma’s story.
On a creative level, Dominik directs the film as if his life depended on it. After watching the film twice it comes as no surprise that there are 14 years’ worth of ideas bottled like lightning in it. From tip-toeing between aspect ratios, switching from color to black-and-white, and in general just orchestrating a symphony of filters, lights, shadows, sound design, sound mixing, angles and POV shots, scene transitions, and shot compositions; Blonde is a technical sensation.
The result is a chaotic cacophony of cognitive dissonance, with shades of David Lynch and Terrence Malick, that’s impossible to look away from. An acutely visceral blend of expressionist and surrealist cinema that puts the camera, at times, in the most uncomfortable and intimate places (her vagina, her womb, an airplane toilet). It also externalizes Norma’s anxiety and fears, as when she walks towards the car that will take her to the abortion clinic and the world around her is distorted quite literally.
A particular sequence that stands as one of the best examples of the film’s dark beauty and technical wizardry is one where Norma has sex with Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), their bodies stretching and blending to form grotesque sculptures of fleshy skin. The sequence ends with one of the most brilliant lap dissolves I think I’ve ever seen - the hanging bedsheet from the bed is juxtaposed with the next shot, long enough to make Norma look larger than life as she falls asleep on a waterfall. Once the shot from the trailer for Niagara being projected on the silver screen transitions fully, the 1953’s film massive tagline appears: “A Raging Torrent of Emotion…That Even Nature Can’t Control!”
A commentary on the spectator’s inability to control the gaze when it comes to human nature’s obsession with sex? A symbolic wink at the raging torrent of emotion that Norma sleeps with every day of her life? Perhaps the waterfall symbolizes all the tears she has and will shed.
She does cry a lot, even though it’s not nearly as often as the film’s critics allege, but her tears have more dimension than most characters in far more celebrated films. She howls, sobs, snivels and blubbers. She cries tears of unspeakable joy and tears of unspeakable horror. She is moved to tears by connections she makes with fictional characters she passionately wants to play, and tears up from a horrific flashback when Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) asks her how she got her start. But to render Ana de Armas into a tearfully doe-eyed impersonation is to not see the forest for the trees; and her performance is a continent-sized forest of micro and macro expressions, impersonations, poise and cadence.
It’s a performance equal to the film’s direction in terms of weight, scope and daring. And somewhere therein lies the reconciliation.
Though filled with perpetually dark subject matter, and impossible to recommend to anyone other than fierce fans of cinema who have endured worse torture on screen - if you’ve sat through Irreversible or Salo, you can sit through this - Blonde overflows with too much ingenious cinematic style, and contains too good of a performance, to be eternally condemned for the hardship it portrays. As uncomfortable and unsettling as it is to sit through, it deserves to be seen at least once. The alternative is to be denied the cinematic splendor it contains.
Telling someone to never watch Blonde because it’s too traumatic would be like telling someone to never listen to Metallica’s Fade to Black. Yes it’s an extremely sad song with lyrics that have disturbing suicidal tendencies, but it’s also one of the most beautiful rock ballads of all time.
Besides, this is a film about how trauma shapes us, and as such is purposefully made to be traumatic. Life's rough material. In that regard, as a mirror turned onto itself, it succeeds. From every vile act committed to every time Norma calls one of her husbands “Daddy,” the film is disturbing and impossibly sad. It is a Freudian dream projected onto Lacan’s Mirror Stage2; and once the radioactive dust settles from the nuclear reactions, Blonde will be dissected, examined and perhaps even revered from a psychoanalytic perspective.
The film goes to great lengths to separate Norma Jeane from Marilyn Monroe, and on a number of occasions points the mirror outwardly, reflecting our own obsession with celebrities. This attachment is mighty strong - as many reactions to the film reveal.
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The inmost shrine of Art.
Just as those who do not love Plato more than Truth cannot pass beyond the threshold of the Academe, so those who do not love Beauty more than Truth never know the inmost shrine of Art.
Judging by pretty much every metric3, most people really hate Blonde. The most common criticism hurled at the film is that it exploits Marilyn Monroe for its own narcissistic, misogynist purposes, that it is filled with misinformation about Monroe’s actual life, that it's all external artifice and we never get inside her head, that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of portraying female victimhood (or portraying Marilyn Monroe for that matter), that it fails to reconcile the star with the person, and that it essentially only focuses on the tragic parts of her life, ignoring all the great, empowering things she’s also done in the industry.4
There are a number of mental gymnastic maneuvers at play here. Chief among them being that most critics treat Blonde as if it’s based on Marilyn Monroe’s real life, and not on a biographical fiction written by Joyce Carol Oates that has the following preface:
Blonde is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have some counterparts in the life and times of Marilyn Monroe, the characterizations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s imagination. Accordingly, Blonde should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a biography of Marilyn Monroe.
Had Dominik chosen to start his film off with that title card, most critics would still find a way to cartwheel around it and numerous articles would still be written about all the factual things Blonde gets wrong about Marilyn Monroe. At least some critics have the peripheral wherewithal to blast Oates as much as Dominik in their takedowns.
Another mental leap Blonde detractors tend to make is in their implicit insistence that the film is about Marilyn Monroe, the iconic silver screen star and famous public figure, and not Norma Jeane, the traumatized actress who led a tragic private life. Even though the film goes above and beyond to separate Norma Jeane from Marilyn Monroe, critics blast the film for not emphasizing what a great actress Monroe was, how great her comic timing was, and all the non-sexist things directors like Billy Wilder used to praise her for. As if all the evidence of this has been locked up in a vault, and Marilyn Monroe’s movies are no longer accessible. Not to mention that one of de Armas’s shining moments in the film is when she’s acting as Monroe on the set of Some Like it Hot.
They rage against the fact that there’s no mention of Monroe standing up to the industry by forming her own production company, or her involvement against the House Committee of Un-American Activities, or her friendship with Ella Fitzgerald, and everything else that Marilyn Monroe did in public that shows what a brave, smart and empowered female she was. All those things may be true to life, but some critics simply ignore the fact that they do not serve the private and intimate story Andrew Dominik was interested in telling.
The way some of these critics passionately lambast Dominik (and, to some extent, de Armas5) for "exploiting" Marilyn Monroe, you’d think the film turned Princess Diana into Amy Winehouse.6 Exploitation is a nice, clickbaity buzz word that sounds very derogatory but the truth is any film using real-life historical figures, whether they're based on real-life events or fiction, dabbles in some form of exploitation.
Blonde is a work of art, adapted from a work of fiction, about a woman who had a traumatic childhood, grew up to be one of the most famous and adored people in the world, and killed herself at a young age. The greatest irony of all is that the nuclear reaction from critics and audiences alike just adds fuel to Dominik’s fire. Even after 50 years since she’s died, people are so passionately wrapped up in their own ideas of who Marilyn Monroe really was, even though none of them ever truly knew her.7
Another particularly delicious piece of irony is that Joyce Carol Oates herself, arguably the most important critic of all, loves the movie and has come to its defence.8
What this critical outrage has shone a light on is today’s insistence on art being at the service of reality, echoing Wilde’s observation from the past. All of the emphasis on female victimhood, insitisance on portraying Marilyn Monroe as a trailblazer symbolic of today’s social milieu, and complaints that we never truly get inside her head (even though the entire film is practically an externalization of what’s inside her head), is just one big unanimous chorus on the tendency to project reality - our own versions of it, our own understanding of it from history, our own experience of it today - onto the screen. And if that means art should bend the knee, then so be it.
Andrew Dominik is clearly cut from a different cloth, which elevates him to those lofty heights populated only by a few - that of the pure artist. He is obsessed with a singular vision for his film (which, it bears repeating, has been brewing in his mind since 2008). He didn’t make the film to be representative of the victimized female condition or to trace a timeline of Marilyn Monroe’s career milestones and public wins for posterity, try as many critics do to fit those square pegs in there.
His purpose was to cinematically re-create those most internal and private thoughts that spoke to him the loudest from Oates’s book, in order to examine the string of unfortunate events and moments from behind the scenes of a larger-than-life screen legend that could have led to her heartbreaking suicide.
That he has achieved this in such style, together with Ana de Armas’s soulful performance, is a thing of Beauty, worthy of its place in the inmost shrine of Art.
In her ‘Second Read’ New Yorker review of Oates’s book - published only a few years ago - Elaine Showalter calls Blonde The Definitive Study of American Celebrity, and showers all kinds of praise on it. She concludes that the novel had a few detractors when the book was published in 2000, but that reading it in 2020 was a whole different story. Once Harvey Weinstein got exposed and the #MeToo movement began in 2017, Hollywood experienced an all-important, long-time-coming cultural shift.9 And with that shift came a different perspective on Blonde:
Just a few years ago, it could still be read as sensationalizing the story of Monroe. Now it must be seen as a passionate and prophetic defense.
Jump forward a couple of years, and the adaptation of the movie is released to resounding hatred and disgust, protesting that Dominik and de Armas have sensationalized the story of Monroe.
Perhaps some day in the future, once the fallout settles and the outrage completely fades to black, more people whose thoughts continue to fade to Blonde will provide their own passionate defense. Not of Monroe herself, but of a brilliant and potent work of art her life inspired.
For it is precisely this kind of art that’s worth defending, as Oscar Wilde’s words pour over the mind like some serendipitous tonic, reminding us…
If something cannot be done to check, or at least to modify our monstrous worship of facts, Art will become sterile, and beauty will pass away from the land.
The essay contains quotations, wherever unspecified, from Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying, as copied from this version.
Read about Lacan’s Mirror Stage here. As with every historically accurate influence or theory, Dominik doesn’t literally translate Lacan or Freud into his film. He uses some of their theories and re-imagines, moulds and manipulates them to serve the story he’s telling.
The most trusted and go-to aggregators for movie opinions give pretty bad scores to Blonde across the board. It has a 42% with critics, 32% with audience on Rotten Tomatoes, a 5.6 on iMDB, a 2.6 on Letterboxd, and a 50/100 on Metacritic. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on the negative reviews and opinions, but it must be noted that there are plenty of people who share my positive take on the film. This includes Bilge Ebiri and Robbie Collin, who wrote great reviews of the film for Vulture and The Telegraph, respectively.
I’m primarily thinking of Angelica Jade Bastién’s ‘The Hollow Impersonation in Blonde’ for Vulture, Christina Newland’s interview with Andrew Dominik for Sight & Sound, Charles Taylor’s review for Esquire, Jessica Kiang’s review for Film Comment, Alex Belth’s ‘What Blonde Misunderstands About Marilyn Monroe’ for Esquire, and Manohla Dargis’ review for the New York Times.
Throughout her piece Bastién is ruthless towards Ana de Armas, calling her a “willing canvas” for Dominik’s misogyny, and at one point even suggesting that the actress is “best when she’s not the gravitational force powering a narrative; rather, she’s its shot of relief.” She then continues to write about all of the misogyny in the film, blind to the irony.
Undisputed facts of Marilyn Monroe’s life include that she always wanted children and never had any, she never knew her father and had an abusive childhood, she worked in a profanely misogynistic industry and was very likely treated as a piece of meat by studioheads, and that she was depressed, especially towards the end of her life, and killed herself at the age of 36.
A big part of Marilyn Monroe’s legacy is the mystery around her private life, and her death. Her biographers fought and disagreed over facts, and to this day, no one can really claim that they truly knew Marilyn Monroe and everything she’s gone through. Thus her internal thoughts and private life, which is the key subject in Dominik’s film and, I’d imagine, Oates’s book, is open to creative interpretation.
Not only does Oates defend the film as a work of art, which she really didn’t have to since she wasn’t involved in the production and authors are not obliged to align with directors (see: Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick), but she says the screenplay was very feminist and in the spirit of MeToo.
Interestingly enough, in an interview on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Dominik credits the MeToo movement for allowing the film to be made. “Pre-MeToo people just thought this is not marketable, nobody gives a shit about a woman’s perspective on the traumatic life experiences while going through Hollywood or anything like that. And they were wrong.”