Everyone has an idea of Marilyn Monroe. A thousand books and a thousand documentaries tell us how beautiful she was, how sultry and starry and sublime. Her face looks back at us from posters, t-shirts, cushions, bags, wallets, and bic lighters. She is a costume for a Kardashian. Teenage girls the world over still post gaudy graphics bearing her likeness on social media, plastered with misattributed quotes espousing it's better to be ridiculous than boring, or that "if you can't handle me at my worst, you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."
Monroe is literally a brand, one reportedly worth about $10 million and owned by Authentic Brands Group, which also holds the rights to Elvis Presley's likeness — a fiction, divorced from the reality of the woman named Norma Jeane Baker. The same goes for Andrew Dominik's Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates's doorstop 2000 novel of the same name. Call it A Fantasia on Monroe Themes. Call it what it is: iconography of a martyr, full of half-truths and gossip and the masculine urge to save women from themselves.
Watching Blonde brings to mind Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit — herself a part of the Marilyn Monroe Industrial Complex — breathily telling Bob Hoskins "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." In Dominik's film, Marilyn Monroe is drawn miserable. Drawn the daughter of an abusive mother who tries to drown her in the bathtub and tells her she's the reason her father abandoned them before she was born. Drawn the wide-eyed ingenue who will give and give and give to the world until there's nothing left but smeared Max Factor lipstick and an empty barbiturate bottle.
Despite both Oates’s and Dominik's repeated insistence that Blonde is a work of fiction that draws inspiration from the life and image of Marilyn Monroe in order to tackle a myriad of themes — from motherhood and misogyny to fame and destiny — it's understandable why the film has attracted such attention since it was first announced. Ana de Armas — luminous, doe-eyed Cuban starlet — is transformed into Marilyn, bleach-blonde and blue-eyed, with a wardrobe painstakingly replicated from the clothes Monroe was photographed in. She adopts Marilyn's mannerisms, her lilting, girlish cadence; she is expressive and charming and sensual and lovely.
But this is a fiction, we're told. A Magritte Monroe. Ceci n'est pas Marilyn.
When we first meet her in Dominik's Blonde, Marilyn is Norma Jeane Mortensen, a young girl living with her mother in Los Angeles. Once, in the dead of night, they drive through raging Los Angeles forest fires, an omen of things to come. After Gladys is committed to an asylum for attempting to kill her daughter, Norma is shunted into an orphanage. The next time we see her, Norma is Marilyn: she looks like the woman the world will come to know, and is meeting with a producer to discuss a part in a film. He rapes her over his desk.
Dominik draws a direct line from Monroe's unhappy childhood to her anxieties and insecurities as an adult. She chooses to have an abortion because she's worried about passing on her mother's mental illness to her baby. She is later drugged — possibly by the CIA — and forced to abort another pregnancy. We see both from lurid vaginal POV shots. Throughout her romances with “The Ex-Athlete” (Bobby Canavale as Joe DiMaggio) and “The Playwright” (Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller) she refers to both men incessantly as “Daddy.” To the Monroe of Blonde, acting is almost incidental — she is a girl in a woman’s body who wants to be loved by someone, anyone, and despite her terror at the prospect, wishes more than anything to become a mother. “The acting area is a sacred space…where the actor cannot die” Monroe whispers over and over, but we only glimpse fragments of her screen career (There she is filming Gentlemen Prefer Blondes! There she is filming Some Like It Hot!) and Blonde does not appear to have any real interest in taking Marilyn Monroe seriously, either as a person or an actress.
Monroe famously struggled to be seen as more than a sex symbol — to be recognized for her well-documented intelligence and savvy as an artist and businesswoman — so it's unfortunate that Blonde strips of her agency, and smooths out the nuances of her life and character to present a woman who was a victim of circumstance, destined for an early grave from the moment she was born into a loveless household. Marilyn is a spectator in her own life, incapable of making things happen, instead doomed to endure the things that happen to her. She is her unhappiness.
This Marilyn stumbles from one tragedy to next, used and abused, discarded carelessly by her mother and her men. She divorces “The Ex-Athlete” after he beats her and insists she give up acting. Her marriage to “The Playwright” disintegrates after a miscarriage. When “The President” summons her, Monroe happily assumes it’s for a romantic date, only for him to demand fellatio while he's on the phone refuting sexual assault allegations. Her eventual suicide (Dominik eschews Oates's conspiracy theory that Monroe was assasinated due to her relationship with JFK) is a final escape from a routinely miserable existence, and by this point hardly feels like a real choice either.
She is beautiful, though, and so is the film. A sometimes gorgeous, sometimes horrifying, formally inventive work that dreams and skips and skates back and forth through time, Blonde is Dominik's most ambitious film, and a clear amount of painstaking effort has been made to capture Monroe's aura. Photographs are recreated with uncanny accuracy. The synth-heavy score of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis invokes the spirit of Angelo Badalamenti’s work on Twin Peaks, in which another tragic young blonde served as a catalyst for America's undoing. The cage in which she sits is gilded and awful. At one point, Monroe's fetus speaks to her from her womb, admonishing her for a past abortion (this sounds like a pro-life PSA, but I assure you, it happens in the film).
But if Blonde really is not about Marilyn the Person but instead Marilyn the Fiction — and given its reliance on recreating images of her, this seems untrue — what might the film tell us about celebrity, fame, and the idea of fate? To take all the beauty and horror that the very real Marilyn Monroe endured, and reduce her to a gorgeous avatar for the pain of womanhood more widely seems to fundamentally misunderstand the things that cause women to suffer. Gesturing at Hollywood’s misogyny does not deliver critique, and Blonde is as guilty of reducing Marilyn to something we can consume but not understand as much as the industry that broke her.
"There is something female about being dead," Oates wrote in Blonde, directly before Marilyn is raped. Perhaps it's the convenience. A dead woman can't fight back. A dead woman is eternally young, eternally beautiful, eternally whatever anyone else wants her to be. A dead woman belongs to someone else. Marilyn has become such a creature, more legend than truth, and when Oates wrote her book, she called Marilyn her “white whale” – that which through America might be dissected. This Blonde trades off her likeness, her charisma, but has no affection for her beyond the cruelty she endured, and how this might serve as a vicious warning for any woman with the audacity to imagine she can be the captain of her own fate. Dominik has crowed about his knowledge of Monroe, his love of her and women more widely, but that which purports to love her only seems to hold her in contempt, keeping her pinned under glass like a butterfly, fragile and beautiful and unmoving. Eternal suicide blonde.
Hannah Strong is the Digital Editor at Little White Lies magazine and author of Sofia Coppola: Forever Young. She lives in London.