Around fifteen minutes into Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” we see Norma Jean (Ana de Armas), the person behind the image of Marilyn Monroe, absorbed by white light, instantly recalling the introduction to the protagonist of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” Betty. The following two and a half hours of “Blonde” are dreamlike and impressionistic. In this dream, we learn that Marilyn Monroe was an icon, an image and beneath that surface, a tortured soul.
“Blonde” has garnered much controversy for its content (it received an NC-17 rating) as well as its complete refusal to represent reality. It is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s fictional account of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Early in the film, we get an impressionistic account of Norma obtaining her first role as Marilyn Monroe in which a casting agent sexually assaults her. This did not happen in real life, and many fans of the actress have criticized the film’s portrayal of something both brutal and false.
However, “Blonde” is not a biopic. Like “Mulholland Drive,” David Lynch’s expressionistic masterpiece, it is not concerned with reality. Instead, it is concerned with the subjective feelings of Norma Jean (as she is often referred to in the film, rather than her stage name). Invisible cameras flash in Norma’s face, fans’ faces are distorted and nightmarish and the story moves from location to location without deference to a linear plot. There is no distinction between what is real and what is not. A Hollywood dreamscape intersects with her actual experiences, and the movie asserts that the two are one and the same: Norma Jean’s life was akin to a dream.
In Dominik’s interviews he described how psychoanalysis influenced the film: “There was a story I was interested in telling, which is about how childhood drama shapes an adult’s perception of the world.” Further, Dominik added, “This is a movie about the unconscious,” which we can see clearly in the way Monroe’s fantasies of her lost father and desire for a child constantly intrude upon her real life. Norma’s self-destructiveness is a motif in the film, recalling Freud’s theory of the “death drive,” which describes the unconscious yearning for death that humans experience. Dominik even cites both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan as formal inspirations for “Blonde” in his interview with Sight and Sound.
By presenting us with a fictional account of Monroe’s life, Dominik gives us the antithesis to the popular narrative. While many consider her a glamorous icon, in “Blonde” Norma Jean is a sad, exploited sex symbol who suffers through her short life. Dominik dramatizes Norma’s sexual exploitation, and shows how exploitation was a constant current throughout her private life. Through this, we understand that Marilyn was not merely a powerful goddess of femininity nor a weak, suffering victim; she was both at once. While the film can easily be construed as trauma porn, I propose that it offers the counter-narrative to our popular conception of Marilyn. Of course, Dominik’s film is in its own way a fictional fetishization of her image made in contrast to the popular narrative. But Dominik’s fetishization of Marilyn is one which reveals rather than conceals. While fans fetishize the image, Dominik fetishizes the horror beneath it.
There is much to celebrate about Marilyn’s life. She was talented and beautiful, and did much to break down sexual norms of the time, but that is not the whole story. There was more to Marilyn than glamor and beauty. There is a dark side to the Hollywood dream, and refusal to acknowledge that does a disservice to Norma Jean as a person. This is the value of Dominik’s film. Will it turn off a lot of viewers? Sure. But is it worth your time? Absolutely.