An Ugly Dream: Blonde Is Horrifying, And That's The Point

"Christ, what an ugly dream." — Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, "Blonde"

Weeping, near sobbing, near hysterics, in the noir-like shadows of her dressing room, Norma Jeane sits in front of her brightly-lit mirror, desperate and coming completely undone. Her hands clasped in prayer, she begs, "Please come." Whitey, her personal makeup artist, continues to apply color and powder and blush and lipstick to the weeping, drowning woman, assuring her that yes, she's coming. She. The proverbial she. 

They're talking about Marilyn Monroe, of course. And sure enough, in like a cursed wind, like the Angel of Death swooping down like the last plague sent by God, something comes into this small dressing room and grabs hold of Norma Jeane's body. And she's no longer Norma Jeane. The tears dry up, and a big, bright, terrifying smile like a death rictus spreads across her gorgeous face. She utters a small, unsettling laugh that could make your blood run cold. Marilyn Monroe is here. It might as well be a possession scene in a horror movie; the demon god Pazuzu seeping into the room like toxic waste to take hold of this poor, lost woman, turning her from one thing into another. Transforming her before our eyes via some dark, unknowable alchemy. This is "Blonde," Andrew Dominik's nearly three-hour-long, NC-17-rated, lightning-rod for controversy take on the life, sadness, loneliness, and death of a Hollywood starlet. The starlet is, of course, Marilyn Monroe. 

But don't call "Blonde" a biopic (even though everyone already has). 

Not concerned with being tasteful

New Zealand-Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik has established himself as skilled at deconstructing and recontextualizing American mythology. With "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the filmmaker set his sights on the myths of the American West and its malignant, ill-formed hero-worship. The nasty, acidic, hate-soaked "Killing Them Softly" took a sledgehammer to the faulty promise of Obama-era hope and change. And now, with "Blonde," Dominik performs surgery without anesthetic on the glory days of Hollywood and the bombshell image of Marilyn Monore. Perhaps his non-American status is the secret to his success — to really grapple with it all, you have to be an outsider looking in.

"Blonde," Dominik's latest, a fictionalized portrait of Marilyn Monroe — "fictionalized" is the key word here, folks — is brutal, cruel, horrific, heartbreaking, and massive. None of this is a mistake. All of this is intentional. The horror is the point. It all feels like a secret history of Hollywood that serves as a portrait of a very talented, very lonely, very damaged person. Awash in noir lighting, dream-like fantasies, highly detailed recreations of images and films of the real Monroe, and scenes smothered in abject horror, it's one of the year's most difficult films to watch. It's also one of the best. 

Controversy has swarmed around "Blonde" from the jump, particularly when it was revealed the film landed itself an NC-17 rating — a rare occurrence in general, and a first for Netflix. Marilyn Monroe fans were outraged at the thought of the film exploiting the late star's legacy, and that only increased once people got a chance to watch the movie. It certainly didn't help that Dominik gave a rather eyebrow-raising interview where the filmmaker wondered if anyone even watched Marilyn Monroe movies anymore, and also bluntly stated in a previous interview: "I'm not concerned with being tasteful." And just to make things extra questionable, the filmmaker said he felt the Monroe flick "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was about "well-dressed whores." 

Don't call it a biopic

Dominik is deliberately trying to be provocative here, and whether or not you're okay with that or think he's trafficking in the language of try-hard teenage boys is certainly up for debate. But what about "Blonde" itself? Dominik's lengthy, overstuffed, exhausting, draining film clearly has more on its mind than saying, "No one watches Marilyn Monroe movies anymore." Every frame is packed with direct references to Monroe's films and photographs taken of the actress; it is like a living monument to the star.

But while Monroe is portrayed as a kind of goddess, a massive golden icon shimmering above those who would kneel beneath her in possessive worship — there's one genuinely unnerving scene, during the filming of the now-famous subway grate moment from "The Seven Year Itch," where Dominik has the camera pan back and up and reveal what looks like hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people watching the scene being filmed — the director isn't giving us a glorified, glamorized monument to her legend. And that decision seems to be the biggest issue infuriating viewers (and people who claim they're viewers but clearly didn't bother to watch the film). The thing is, a huge chunk of this controversy can be waylaid by the fact that "Blonde" is not a biopic, even though everyone has decided to call it one. 

"Blonde" is, of course, inspired by a true story. But it's heavily fictionalized. In fact, it's based on a novel, by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates' book isn't interested in telling the true story. It's interested in distilling Monroe the icon into something both otherworldly and unshakably human. As Oates said in a recent interview

"...I wasn't at all interested in the career of Marilyn Monroe and I didn't know much about her, but I had seen a photograph of Norma Jeane when she was about 16 years old and it just really won my heart. She has brunette hair, she's quite pretty, but not glamorous. She doesn't look like a movie star. She has little artificial flowers in her hair, she's very sweet. And I really wanted to write about that girl, I wanted to look into her childhood, and then I wanted to write about how she moves past being Norma Jeane and goes into this dimension of being Marilyn Monroe..."

None of this is to say anyone is wrong for disliking "Blonde." It is a flawed film, and so heavy with brutality that those who find themselves repulsed are well within their rights. But what I'm getting at here is that the repulsion is the point. Dominik wants the viewer to be uncomfortable; unsettled; disgusted. Whether or not you can stomach that is a matter of choice. 


The movie adaptation itself isn't shy about its source — Oates is mentioned in the credits and the marketing, too. But people can easily overlook that, and they can't seem to escape biopic thinking. As a result, they lob anger at the film for daring to show things that didn't really happen, as if the film is deliberately tarnishing Monroe's truth. It's a curious reaction because the approach "Bonde" is taking is very similar to the recent "Spencer," the Princess Diana film that earned Kristen Stewart an Oscar nomination. Pablo Larraín's portrait of Princess Di may draw on fact, but it's heavily fictionalized — unless you believe that Diana really did fantasize about chomping on pearls while spotting the ghost of Anne Boleyn roaming around. And yet, "Spencer," for all its clearly fictional flourishes, did not suffer the same sort of backlash.

Here's the thing: even if "Blonde" was claiming to be a 100% accurate biopic based solely on fact, that wouldn't be true. No biopic can make that claim with a straight face. Even the most accurate of biopics take liberty with facts. Why? Because that's how movies work. Even documentaries are known to condense and alter timelines for more coherent viewing. Because real life isn't like a movie. Liberties have to be taken. There's nothing new here. Dominik isn't somehow bucking tradition. He's following an age-old trend, one that was true even back when Monroe was alive and making pictures.

Ultimately, "Blonde" doesn't feel like a biopic — it feels like a David Lynch movie. The term "Lynchian" gets thrown around a lot, almost always incorrectly. But it feels more than appropriate for "Blonde", with its dive into seedy underbellies, dual natures, surreal dream imagery, and a radiant, kind heart beating in the middle of all the inescapable cruelty. The final, ghastly act feels heavily inspired by "Mulholland Drive," and Nick Cave & Warren Ellis' swooping, wailing, hazy score seems to deliberately recall the work of Lynch's frequent composer Angelo Badalamenti. Like Laura Palmer in "Twin Peaks," particularly "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," the Marilyn of "Blonde" is a good-at-heart person tormented by her own inner demons, and the demons of those around her. A sweet, doomed woman too good for this vile world. As Laura's boyfriend Bobby Briggs said on "Twin Peaks," "She said people try to be good but they're really sick and rotten, her most of all, and every time she tried to make the world a better place, something terrible came up inside her and pulled her back down into hell. Took her deeper and deeper into the blackest nightmare. Every time it got harder to go back up to the light."

A ghost story

Within the frame of "Blonde," Marilyn Monroe never even existed. She was a shadow, a specter; a creature from some gorgeous netherworld, conjured up to possess the body of poor Norma Jeane, who wanted nothing more than to be both loved and respected for who she really was beneath the white-blonde hair and sexpot labels created by tabloids. But try as she might, she could never escape those who only saw the surface; the porcelain skin, the platinum hair, the fake beauty mark on the cheek.

And at every turn, there are the men in her life — cruel, cruel men (with the notable exception of Adrien Brody's kind-but-puzzled Arthur Miller, who is the most likable non-Monroe character here). These are men who all see Marilyn Monroe as nothing more than beautiful, disposable meat to be hauled around and presented without comment. And as for Norma Jeane? They don't care about her at all. Monroe may be the construct, but to the men, it's Norma Jeane who never existed.

The ever-shifting aspect ratio and color spectrum, mixed with deliberately blurred frames and evocative imagery — JFK lounging in his back brace while watching "Earth vs. The Flying Sauces" before forcing sex on Marilyn; blood blooming on Marilyn's flowery dress after she takes a tragic fall; Marilyn laying still and silent in bed while make-up is applied to her face as if she's a corpse being done up by a mortuary cosmetologist; the film's final, heartbreaking, desperate moments — all coalesce to create a film designed to horrify and hypnotize.

What Ana de Armas is doing here in the lead role is nothing short of jaw-dropping. She's not doing a Monroe impression, nor is she trying to completely capture Monroe as we know her. She's portraying Norma Jeane, a kind, sweet, hopeless woman who wants the type of love she can never have. It's a tender, scary performance that cuts deep to the bone. It shakes you up, as if you've just seen a ghost.

"Blonde" is now streaming on Netflix.