Vague Visages’ Blonde review contains minor spoilers. Andrew Dominik’s 2022 Netflix movie stars Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody and Bobby Cannavale. Check out more cinema coverage and soundtrack song listings at VV’s home page.
Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel, is a deceptive, provocative and innovative film that manipulates the all-powerful Hollywood Machine to its advantage. Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik tells a fictionalized story about an American icon — Norma Jeane Mortenson aka Marilyn Monroe — and essentially positions the main character as a female version of The Idiot’s Prince Myshkin.
Just as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s suffering protagonist struggles in St. Petersburg’s high society, Blonde’s Norma Jeane faces numerous obstacles while navigating Hollywoodland during the 50s and early 60s. Dominik cites Russian literature multiple times throughout the 166-minute film, a narrative tool that at once develops his version of Norma Jeane while doubling down on the Myshkin-like, too-good-for-this-world conceptual approach. Blonde is a challenging piece of filmmaking about a traumatized woman looking for genuine affection — it’s not a traditional biopic that adheres to the expectations of adoring Monroe fans.
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Cuban actress Ana de Armas headlines Blonde as Norma Jeane, a young woman who grows up in Hollywood with her mentally unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). She dreams of meeting her absent and unidentified father, who seemingly sends letters of affection as his daughter transforms into a movie star. On the surface, Blonde is a straight-forward tale about Monroe’s experiences. Norma Jeane struggles with her confidence, which in turn makes her vulnerable when interacting with powerful men such as Mr. Z (David Warshofsky as David F. Zanuck, presumably), The Playwright (Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller), The Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio) and The President (Caspar Phillipson as John F. Kennedy).
Norma Jeane receives career advice and sexual healing from Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), the sons of Hollywood icons. The male characters represent the unforgiving Hollywood Machine that penalizes young women for having the audacity to be themselves. By the 37-minute mark in Blonde, a sex scene announces a narrative/personality split. Norma Jeane morphs into Marilyn and gives in to industry pressures. From there, Dominik plays by his own rules for an edgy spin on familiar Hollywood tales. Norma Jeane’s body, in this cinematic universe, is like Chekhov’s Gun — when de Armas’ character undresses for Cass and Eddy, she begins a dangerous game, one that builds to a fictional yet cruel twist.
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Blonde has polarized critics thus far. And all of the “torture porn” accusations are indeed fair. Blonde will be a difficult watch for anyone who has suffered severe emotional and/or physical abuse. It’s a film with an aborted fetus that talks. Norma Jeane screams throughout Blonde and has several abortions. She performs oral sex on JFK during a phone call. Time and time again, though, Dominik returns to his central thesis about Norma Jeane’s deep-rooted father issues. There’s a method to the madness, difficult as it may be to watch. All of the central themes emerge during the opening sequence, in which the subject experiences physical abuse while navigating a hell-on-earth scenario with her mother.
The “daddy” seed is rooted immediately in Blonde. A traditional biopic would hammer away at obvious themes, but Dominik understands the nuances of the human condition and thus takes some risks when exploring Norma Jeane’s private life through her point of view. Does everything work? Well, not quite. But that doesn’t mean that Blonde is a disappointment. The most enduring films often polarize critics from the jump. And Blonde will ultimately hold up decades from now due to Dominik’s original approach and a top-notch lead performance from de Armas.
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Blonde is a film that celebrates de Armas’ beauty, star power and potential. It’s not a film that bows down to celebrity culture. Some critics have mistakenly implied that Blonde focuses on the male point of view, when in fact the entire film is structured around Norma Jeane’s perspective. Therefore, it’s crucial that de Armas receives opportunities to shine during challenging scenes, specifically in terms of how she communicates her character’s anxieties. Yes, it’s painful to see Norma Jeane wail, yet it’s still fascinating to see the Cuban lead immerse herself into a coveted mainstream role. It’s not like she’s a Hollywood newcomer who was tricked and exploited by Dominik. It’s not like she doesn’t have a bit of industry clout.
De Armas has been building her resume for years now, and Blonde allows the actress to riff on her subject’s best traits, such as Norma Jean’s intellect and kindness. And it certainly helps that Dominik blends traditional Hollywood framing with innovative camera techniques, which benefit his lead’s on-screen potential while tapping into her experiences across various genres — see Knock Knock (horror), Knives Out (comedy) and No Time to Die (action). A final act bedroom scene feels like a found footage horror movie, whereas a mid-film window sequence has a touch of classic Hollywood formalism. One can dismiss Dominik’s take on Monroe’s life, but it’s irresponsible for any critic to suggest that Blonde isn’t a technically brilliant film featuring a strong lead performance.
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Speaking of brilliant acting, the aforementioned Brody delivers one of his finest performances in Blonde. His character interpretation complements Norma Jeane’s demeanor — they’re both gentle, thoughtful and emotional individuals. When discussing Russian literature, Miller talks down to Marilyn but quickly reaches an epiphany that brings him to tears. Brody’s reaction as a performer underlines Norma Jeane’s most endearing trait within the film — her ability to connect and engage with people on a human level. Sadly, for the character, her transparency often leads to humiliating moments, as various people — even members of DiMaggio’s Italian-American family — see a “dumb blonde” rather than a woman who is simply decent, kind and loving, much like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin (a perceived “idiot”).
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Blonde is worth a watch because of the lead performance alone. De Armas will win a Best Actress Oscar and won’t lose any career momentum because of the film’s controversies. Blonde doesn’t quite match the overall quality of Dominik’s last fiction feature, Killing Them Softly (2012), but I respect his creative ambition and willingness to challenge viewers, especially in a time of heightened moral righteousness. After all, cinema should reflect all aspects of the human experience. Blonde will entertain open-minded cinephiles who enjoy being dominated by bold and ambitious filmmaking.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.
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