Blonde presents a singular vision of Norma Jeane Baker, the troubled soul who played host to Marilyn Monroe. The film makes no claim to being the definitive account of her life. Instead, in adapting Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, director Andrew Dominik tells the story of a tragic figure who died by overdose at the age of 36.
Dominik presents the threads of this death in an experimental, expressionistic nightmare. The aspect ratio is redrawn throughout, narrowing and widening. The palette alternates between full colour and stark monochrome. There are numerous handheld moments, too, as well as various effects that range from the ghoulish to the arrestingly beautiful. All of this gothic visual splendour is scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose work is hauntingly ambient. Blonde is a truly aesthetic experience and perhaps the greatest example of Dominik’s dark, inventive artistry.
Again, it must be stressed that Blonde is not a linear biopic. It is not a by-the-numbers, rise and fall narrative. It does not give a full account of Baker’s life and I wouldn’t want to see a film that tried because that would likely be a bloated, laboured mess. The best biopics are almost always interpretations rather than fastidious chronologies. They attempt to capture an essence, an angle, or an episode of an individual’s life. Blonde is different in that it is an interpretation of an interpretation. An auteur, Dominik has taken Joyce Carol Oates’ brutal novel and chosen the darkest possible account of Baker’s life, a life marked by an absent father, an abusive mother, a string of failed relationships, and an exploitative level of fame that would destroy just about anyone. The life we see on screen is a representation not just of Baker but also the human condition. It is a visceral depiction of abuse and regret, pain and disillusionment. Dominik shows this with flashes of explicit imagery, such as the adjustment of a speculum or the wielding of an erect penis.
Some may argue that Blonde contributes to Baker’s exploitation, but depiction does not necessarily equal endorsement. In fact, it typically equals the opposite. The Accused does not revel in rape and Boys Don’t Cry does not take voyeuristic pleasure in transphobic murder. Equivalently, Blonde takes no pleasure in the abuse and objectification of Norma Jeane Baker. It is an excoriation of the industrial forces that killed a 36-year-old woman. It is, according to Oates, an “utterly ‘feminist’ interpretation” of her novel.
Protestations of this film’s ‘male gaze’ fail to see that Blonde is an aggressive critique of it. The gaze of men and the masses destroyed Baker and Dominik’s film makes this abundantly clear. He almost makes us complicit on occasion, especially during a recreation of the famous subway grate moment, which invites us to ogle her body with a baying crowd, bringing to mind the provocations of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which challenges filmgoers’ casual sadism rather than lust.
Most viewers will have questions of accuracy. Was Baker’s first meeting with JFK really that abhorrent? Did she run out of an abortion, kicking and screaming? What about the threesome with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr., did that happen? Joyce Carol Oates maintains that Baker’s suffering was “much worse” than anything shown in Dominik’s film, while others, recoiling in disgust, believe the ‘biopic’ to be one note and one track.
Veracity is not the foremost concern here. This harrowing fairytale captures a general truth, not an exact one. It presents a singular vision of a tortured icon and it does so with macabre brilliance. Crucially, it also benefits from a terrific performance by Ana de Armas, whose errors of native tongue are overstated. Blonde will make you feel terrible – don’t view that as a fault.