In the first few minutes of Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, a young Norma Jeane (not yet Marilyn Monroe) sits beside her manic mother as they drive up the Hollywood hills and into a blazing fire. For the rest of the two-hour and 46-minute film, we remain there, emotionally. The NC-17-rated film holds the audience hostage, as we watch the near-constant brutalization of Monroe at the hands of men in power, men in her romantic life, men in her audiences, and one anonymous man claiming to be her father who sends her letters throughout the movie. We never get a glimpse of the charismatic, funny, and seductive star that captivated a nation—except for a few brief clips of audiences watching her movies in theaters.
At times, Dominiks’ bold visual direction was effective, like when flashes of empyrean white light transport a drugged Monroe between semi-consciousness on a plane, into a movie theater, and back to the plane again. His choice to switch between scenes in technicolor, in black and white, and in a shifting aspect ratio plop us into instantly recognizable vignettes of Monroe’s photographed life and are supposed to play up the chasm between who she is and what she represents. The high contrast in a few of the black and white scenes accentuates her eponymous hair, highlighting her solitude amidst throngs of lecherous men. It’s a striking visual that nails her horrible fate. But Jesus—we get it. Her fate. It’s horrible, from start to finish. Dominik set out to highlight the tragedy of Marilyn’s inner life, but I’m not sure we see her inner life, as much as we just see her being raped and brutalized up close.
Actually, I lied; we do see some of her inner life, albeit too literally. At various times throughout the film, Marilyn has full-on conversations with a CGI fetus (the same fetus each time, despite the conversations taking place during different pregnancies). Sure, I get the idea behind Monroe glorifying her pure, protected fetus—it’s a status she yearns for, but, since she was never afforded that protection as a child, is unable to provide. A baby might be the only thing that cures her from calling every other man she meets “Daddy,” and lord knows I was ready for that to stop. But having a sentient fetus ask, “Why did you kill me last time?” (insane) is fully a scene from a VHS that an evangelical Christian middle school would play for its sex-ed classes.
The pro-life timbre that rang through these miracle-of-life-ass scenes completely undercut the film’s attempt to portray how reducing a woman to her sexual and reproductive abilities is bad. Even if we are supposed to understand what Monroe cannot—that the talking fetus won’t save her—the scenes are way too jarringly cheesy to be artistically considered. For every five paragraphs debating de Arma’s Cuban accent, which I found to not be distracting in the least, there should be 18 long-reads about these goofy fetus dialogues that just repeat the sentiment “da fuck?” ad infinitum.
To her credit, Ana de Armas impressively manages to perform a woman on the brink of tears, collapse, and destruction for the entirety of the film without it feeling exhausting. What is exhausting is watching her character, at best, be bounced around like a beach volleyball from scenario to scenario, and at worst, be dragged like her own stuffed toy tiger from abuse to abuse. The NC-17 rating, I imagine, is not from any one scene alone, but the cumulative ceaseless suffering of our main character.
In an interview with Vulture in May, Dominik explained that “everything that’s been written about Marilyn Monroe…is a rescue fantasy,” and that “it’s all from the point of view of: ‘If I’d been there. I understood her. If I’d been there, she would’ve been fine.’” Blonde, he added, would be “no different.” Towards the end of the movie, at a point where she’s barely able to hold herself up, I wondered if—no, I hoped it would be ending soon. How much more can I see of this woman getting raped, getting drugged, drugging herself, and bursting into tears? Is that fetus going to pop back up again like the Babadook? The film ended with Monroe’s death about ten minutes after I had that thought. There were a few brief claps, but nothing remotely near the 14-minute Venice ovation.
As I was walking out the door, a woman beside me said to her friend, “You almost want her to die so it would be over.” A wave of relief washed over me, cleansing away the guilt I had for holding that exact same thought. So, no, I can’t say I left the theater wanting to rescue Marilyn or thinking that, if I’d been there, I could. Ultimately, I’m not sure a movie purported to make you think critically about the life of Marilyn Monroe has done its job, when the audience leaves the theater just wishing her dead.