Throughout its mammoth runtime, Andrew Dominik’s Blonde (his first film in 10 years) is constantly, for better and worse, walking a tightrope between the familiar and the bizarre. In his study of the tragic life of Marilyn Monroe (portrayed here by Ana de Armas), Dominik recreates with eerie accuracy some of the most famous photographs and film scenes ever captured but, in adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s novel instead of sticking to biopic convention, also crafts a filmic biography that never looks or sounds anything like its genre stablemates. It’s this stylistic and formal ambition, alongside Armas’s incredible performance, that keeps Blonde afloat, though its relentless cruelty and razor-sharp edges keep you at arms’ length, making for a choppy three hour ride.
In his one concession to convention, Dominik starts Monroe’s story at the very beginning with her childhood as Norma Jeane Baker and the chaotic trauma wrought upon her by her abusive and unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson, on very intense form). Blonde treats these maternal failures – and the related paternal abandonment – as its original sin, the disaster which cursed Norma’s life and Marilyn’s career and the foundation of all the many, many traumas to follow as a woman not just in the public eye, but trapped within its gaping maw.
Almost everyone Marilyn encounters – and this includes Dominik’s camera, often skulking and tracking Armas like an ambush predator – is treacherous, lecherous, or both, and Blonde really puts her, and the audience, through the wringer. Multiple rapes and forced abortions – Marilyn’s conversations with her unborn fetus are sure to prove the most controversial scenes and I thought carried a very ugly charge – not to mention two shots from inside her vagina, frame Marilyn as an almost perpetual victim, always looking for a new ‘daddy’ to rescue her.
In the hands of a less capable lead performance, the lack of agency afforded to Marilyn could have been entirely lethal to the film, but Armas is simply extraordinary, inhabiting both Norma and Marilyn in such a way that, at times, it can feel less a performance than a possession. Blonde posits the persona of Marilyn as a coping device or protective shield for Norma, and is direct in its treatment of the two as almost separate characters, in both of whose shoes Armas proves completely comfortable. The scenes of Marilyn shooting Some Like It Hot, in particular, are genuinely uncanny, and the choice to have Armas keep her natural accent and add the iconic Monroe breathiness rather than go for a straight impression is inspired, avoiding cheap parody and feeling more authentic in the process.
It’s a sad and jagged performance for a sad and jagged film, edited for maximum discomfort. Dominik is constantly switching from colour to black-and-white, dialling up saturation and contrast, and shifting aspect ratios. It keeps Blonde visually unpredictable, though the one constant is that it is always absolutely gorgeous. Alongside DOP Chayse Irvin, Dominik conjures some of the year’s most unforgettable compositions, from unsparing crystalline close-ups to surreal, room-melting sex scenes. It would be impossible to fully dismiss any film that just always looks so damn good and the juxtaposition of these beautiful framings and their often horrible content makes Dominik’s point of spoiled facades bluntly but effectively.
Blonde always impressed me on a purely technical level, be that Armas’s performance or Dominik’s almost unparalleled visual confidence, but I can’t actually say I ever much enjoyed my time with it. The cruelty on display here may be the point, but its relentlessness, combined with just how frequently Armas has to be naked and look terrified, eventually sours. Throughout Blonde, Dominik critiques the way that Marilyn’s audiences never saw her beyond a surface level but – despite his undeniable formal mastery and Armas bringing a heartrending depth that she’s not given on the page – I’m not quite sure he has either.