Cinephiles always tend to debate about the fact that there isn’t any clear line of distinction that separates the horror and thriller genres. Everyone has their own arguments. Personally speaking, only the movies that excite you in the moment and motivate you to immediately go back in for seconds, count as thrillers. Whereas, the movies that send a shiver down your spine and make its way into your nightmares, almost preventing you from re-watching it, can be categorized as horror films. Based on that classification, three movies from last year that were labeled as “drama,” or “dark comedy” definitely played out as horror films. They are “Spencer,” “The Beta Test,” and “The Humans.” And the only film from 2022 that has had a similar impact on me is the controversial “Blonde.”
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, “Blonde” is based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. Now, before going any further, here’s a clarification: Oates has insisted that this isn’t a biography but a fictionalized retelling of her life. They are based on rumors, which are then mixed with some facts to give it a realistic effect. Coming to the story itself, “Blonde” starts off with Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) as a child (her young version is played by Lily Fisher) dealing with her emotionally unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). That’s where the seed of her fascination for a father figure is planted, and it grows and grows through her relationships with Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), the Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale), and The Playwright (Adrien Brody).
Throughout all of his feature films (“Chopper,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Killing Them Softly”), as well as documentaries (“One More Time with Feeling” and “This Much I Know to Be True”), Dominik has showcased his knack for subjectivity. With “Blonde,” he takes it to the next level. He’s obviously aware of the fact that the novel his script is based on is more fiction than fact. He is also aware that every member of the audience has their own perception of Marilyn Monroe. So, in an effort to ground the story while simultaneously re-educating audiences about the horrors of Monroe’s life, he goes to extreme lengths to always keep her viewpoint in focus. That’s why everything from the camera lenses, the aspect ratio, the ambient sound, the score, the lighting, the color, and essentially everything that you can see or hear constantly shifts according to what the character feels.
The interpretation of these shifts are quite open-ended. It probably won’t be apparent on the first viewing why “Blonde” goes from the Academy ratio to the widescreen or from a film crane to a Snorricam or from black-and-white to Technicolor or from hyperkinetic cuts to slow motion. Maybe Dominik wanted to show how claustrophobic Monroe felt because of the monstrous wild men clamoring to have a piece of her. Or maybe he wants to state that, despite knowing so much about Monroe, we know so little about her, and there isn’t a specific cinematic technique to capture her grace and tragedy. But no matter what your inference is, the one thing that’s undeniable is that not a single aspect of this film is frivolous. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score, Chayse Irvin’s cinematography, Adam Robinson’s editing, Florencia Martin’s production design, Peter Andru’s art direction, Erin Fite’s set decoration, Jennifer Johnson’s costume design, the hair and make-up, and the VFX are all top-notch.
There are no two ways to say this, but Dominik isn’t here to sugarcoat anything with “Blonde.” That can attract two kinds of reactions from the audience, and neither of them will be wrong. One, you’ll be utterly repulsed by what you are witnessing and might shut off the movie within the first 10-20 minutes. That’s perfectly fine. The themes and the visuals are triggering for those who are victims of sexual assault, and they don’t need to relive their traumas via this film. Two, you can understand how relentless, misogynistic, and cruel the USA and its film industry, i.e., Hollywood, are and re-sensitize yourself regarding your treatment of female stars (and women, in general). Because Dominik and his team never put an intimate scene and one of physical assault on the same plane. Which is a roundabout way of saying, the movie never glorifies the horror Monroe faces and rightfully calls out those who inflicted it upon her and those who stood by as mere spectators/enablers.
Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe (the distinction is important because they are basically two different characters) is jaw-dropping in “Blonde.” It’s always nice to see an actor who has proven how capable she is in a short span of time take yet another leap forward. Although it’s cliche to say that “she becomes Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe,” the phrase does apply to her performance. She tackles every scene with so much nuance and so much empathy that it never feels like she’s merely capitalizing on Monroe’s fame. She doesn’t just put on make-up, change her hair, and mimic her mannerisms; she transforms herself entirely so that every quiver of her eyebrows or twitching of her hands seems organic. It’s safe to say that this is one of the best performances of the year. Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Toby Huss, Julianne Nicholson, Evan Williams, and Lily Fisher are exceptionally good. But to be honest, this is an Ana de Armas show.
That said, the treatment of Monroe, or the movie itself, isn’t just black and white for two reasons. The first one is the male gaze. Of course, Monroe (the person, not the character) has only been viewed through the male gaze. So, does that mean Monroe (the character) should be viewed through the same lens? For the most part, Dominik and Irvin reserve the voyeurism for the moments where Monroe is being watched by absolute creeps and degenerates. And, as mentioned before, she’s framed quite sensitively when she’s going through some of the most gut-wrenching moments of her life. But, at the same time, there are moments where the nudity and the POV shots (from her genitalia) seem exploitative. To be clear, this is not an accusation of exploiting Armas. She’s influential enough to call the shots, and there are several professionals in place to ensure that she isn’t uncomfortable in any way. This is directed at the creators for their treatment of the character.
The second aspect is the topic of abortion. Along with Monroe’s “daddy issues,” her arc is governed by three pregnancies, two of them ending in abortion and one ending in a miscarriage. And Monroe is shown to be understandably distraught about it, so much so that she promises one of her unborn fetuses that she’s going to ensure that nothing happens to it. Since “Blonde” is releasing at a time when abortion has been deemed illegal in a lot of places across the USA, this particular narrative thread can appear to be pro-life and anti-abortion. Even if the novel is from 2000 and Dominik finished filming in 2021, while “Roe vs. Wade” was overturned in 2022, the argument around abortion and its political repercussions aren’t limited to just this year. So, it could be a mere coincidence that the film’s release has aligned with the current socio-cultural climate or that the writer and the director have been pro-life all along. Or it might be Dominik’s honest interpretation of what Monroe must have felt after two abortions and a miscarriage.
In conclusion, “Blonde” is a film that you will either watch in its entirety or you won’t. It may sound like a stupid thing but hear me out. There are multiple reasons for not watching this film: a) its presentation is nightmare-inducing, b) Marilyn Monroe is treated in a harsh light, and c) Brad Pitt is one of the producers. If you choose not to watch it for any or all of those reasons, you’ll be in the right, and that’s perfectly fine. If you choose to watch it and shut it down midway for any of the aforementioned reasons, you’ll still be in the right. But if you feel that you can tackle the subject matter and engage with the film, you’ll come out the other end a changed person. It’ll not only send you down the rabbit hole of stories circling Monroe and get you to watch her films but also make you wonder about the entertainment industry and the media-consuming populace.