Andrew Dominik’s Blonde succeeds as a movie precisely because it fails as a biopic. Starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, Blonde begins with Marilyn’s childhood and ends with her death, but Dominik significantly strays from the facts. By the movie’s final scene, viewers are led to believe that Marilyn was a victim of her tragic fate, and despite her talent, she never stood a chance to survive.
Based on the best-selling novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is dividing viewers with its speculative portrayal of Marilyn. Some argue that Dominik misrepresents Marilyn by prioritizing her most painful private moments above her numerous professional accomplishments. For nearly three hours, Dominik dwells on the abuse Marilyn endured, and barely shines a light on the positive events that shaped her career, like when she announced the formation of her own production company in 1955. Blonde has a controversial NC-17 rating and features several scenes of sexual abuse and violence, further alienating viewers with its dark vision.
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Blonde aims to shock, and Dominik’s achievement is to take the biopic, a typically banal genre that functions as an adulation of stardom, and subvert it in provocative ways. Blonde defies viewers’ expectations with its bleak depiction of Marilyn, forcing them to think about why they watch movies about famous people in the first place, especially those like Marilyn whose lives were cut short. A bold anti-biopic, Blonde is a success when understood as a cinematic experiment that provides commentary on the consequences of fame, as opposed to a fact-based account of Marilyn’s life.
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Blonde changes from black and white to color and regularly switches aspect ratios, often in the same scene. These formal techniques differ from conventional biopics by denying complete immersion into the movie. Dominik constantly reminds viewers that they are watching a constructed work of art. De Armas’ meta performance, as well, creates more distance whenever she breaks the fourth wall to address the camera, or in some instances, doesn’t attempt to conceal her Cuban accent while speaking as Marilyn.
To further destabilize viewers, Blonde deliberately avoids recreating Marilyn’s iconic moments for entertainment. Instead, viewers are forced to confront the downside of Marilyn’s celebrity. One of the biggest movie stars, Marilyn Monroe died young at age 36, and Dominik conveys the corrosive effects of her enormous popularity. For example, Dominik’s staging of the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), in which a breeze from a subway grate blows Marilyn’s white dress above her thighs and exposes her body, plays like disturbing horror. As a visibly terrified Marilyn tries to hold a fake smile, Dominik cuts to a group of men gawking at her from a distance. In another scene toward the end, Dominik literally fast-forwards through the premiere of Some Like it Hot (1959), the peak of Marilyn’s movie career. In contrast to recent biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) or Judy (2019), Dominik doesn’t sell easy-to-digest nostalgia. While the ending of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody presents the rock band’s rousing Live Aid performance and Judy showcases a triumphant Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a sold-out crowd, Blonde deprives viewers of an uplifting finale, preferring instead to emphasize Marilyn’s suffering.
By refusing to bask in celebration, Blonde dismantles the biopic, which too often exalts celebrity culture without critical examination. Despite some controversial artistic choices, Dominik deserves credit for daring to be different. Rather than make another feel-good movie about a beloved star, he challenges viewers to consider why they are so drawn to Marilyn’s life, and if she paid a price for their constant curiosity.