Netflix’s Blonde from director Andrew Dominik transforms Ana de Armas into Marilyn Monroe (visually, at least) with a stunning level of detail that’ll make you wonder whether any post-production VFX was involved. Outside of its optic uncanniness, there’s nothing about de Armas’ performance itself as Marilyn that raises that question. But it’s somewhat hard not to consider after Blonde introduces one of its strangest characters: a judgmental CGI fetus who sometimes talks to Marilyn Monroe from within her uterus to shame her for having had an abortion in the past.
Blonde wants to be taken seriously as a rumination on Monroe’s complicated relationships with fame, love, and her own identity. But the shaming fetus (a truly deranged sequence of words to type out), is one of the shining examples of how deeply misguided an endeavor the film is as a whole. It’s easy to see how Blonde could have been a challenging and revelatory look back on the life of one of the most famous women in Hollywood history. Unfortunately, it’s very much not that.
Content warning: this article discusses depictions of rape and sexual assault.
Much like Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel by the same name that it’s adapted from, Dominik’s Blonde is a sprawling fictionalization of Monroe’s (Ana de Armas) life that often eschews any pretense of strict factual accuracy as it sets out to surface more emotional, subjective truths about the Hollywood icon. Some of the movie’s details, like Marilyn’s strained relationship with her mother and her abusive marriage to Joe DiMaggio have been well documented, and Dominik tries to lay them bare as traumatic, essential pieces of the larger Marilyn Monroe picture.
Other details, though, like Blonde’s leering portrayal of Monroe being raped by a megaproducer named Mr. Z (David Warshofsky) as part of a casting process, are narrative inventions meant to impress upon you the film’s idea of how sexual violence can rob someone of their personhood. Mr. Z’s assault of Marilyn is just one of the many nauseating, brutal instances of dehumanization Blonde subjects its main character, lead actor, and audience to as it clumsily fumbles with subject matter that Dominik, who also wrote the film, lacks the range to tackle all that well.
It’s seldom clear what Blonde’s trying to say about Marilyn as the movie follows her into a sexually charged, treacherous throuple with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). But in each of Blonde’s depictions of Monroe in sexual contexts, there’s a pronounced throughline of misogynistic objectification that tends to read more like a reflection of Dominik’s feelings about his subject and less like a desire to capture the spirit of the time period. Marilyn Monroe’s sensuality and her ability to wield it are foundational elements of her legacy as the ultimate blonde bombshell, and yet, consensual sex as a source of pleasure simply doesn’t exist for her in Blonde. She’s raped by one man, beaten by another, and raped again as the movie unfolds, and each of the punishing assaults are filmed with a lurid focus on de Armas’ body, almost as if to invite you to take pleasure in witnessing her being bruised and beaten.
Only Dominik knows what he really thinks about Marilyn Monroe, a woman and a concept who embodied a kind of larger-than-life idealized hyperfemininity that both reinforced and, at times, subverted heteronormative ideas about gender and sexuality. But one could easily get the impression that he harbors a deep distaste bordering on hatred for her and the decisions she made about her body, judging from things he’s said and the way Blonde touches on Monroe’s miscarriages and abortions she may have had.
About an hour into Blonde, after Marilyn’s mother has been committed to a mental hospital and the platinum blonde actress has broken up with Chaplin and Robinson (a relationship also created for the film), Monroe is devastated to learn that she’s become pregnant not long before she’s meant to begin shooting Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In a panic, she calls Mr. Z, who makes quick work of arranging an abortion for her the next day. As Marilyn’s tearfully relaying her story to her rapist, Blonde fixes its focus on the telephone cord in her hand and cuts to its first shot of the CGI fetus inside of her with its umbilical cord displayed prominently, almost as if to imply that it’s tapped in to the conversation taking place outside.
It’s clear that Blonde thinks the juxtaposition of umbilical and telephone cords is quite clever, especially when the fetus begins to speak (seemingly through the cord) later in the movie. But in the context of the scene where the fetus (which is supposed to be relatively early in its development) first appears, the weird attempt at profundity ends up making it seem like Blonde’s creative team might not have known how undeveloped fetuses actually are that early on in a pregnancy.
Blonde establishes rather early on how serious Monroe’s issues with substance abuse were and frequently suggests that she sometimes moved through the world in a drug- or alcohol-induced haze that might have exacerbated an inherited personality disorder the movie frames as one of the big fears of her life. It’s that fear that first convinces her to abort her pregnancy, but in the car the next morning on the way to the procedure, she has a change of heart that ultimately goes unheeded despite Marilyn’s insistence. Blonde leaves open to interpretation whether the abortion it depicts is something Marilyn wants, but it also strongly implies that the abortion happened because the studio she was signed to demanded it, a horrific idea that only becomes more morbid as the movie progresses.
Rumors about Monroe having had abortions have been swirling around for decades, but it was no secret that she experienced multiple miscarriages during her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (portrayed in the film by Adrien Brody). There were plenty of dramatic and scandalous highlights throughout Monroe and Miller’s relationship that Blonde could have turned into a burning focal point representing the impact it had on her. But the movie strangely chooses to zoom in on one of Monroe’s miscarriages, blame her for it, and conflate it with abortion — a baffling combination of decisions that winds up making Blonde play like a piece of anti-abortion propaganda.
Just moments before Monroe trips and falls — causing her to miscarry — Blonde finds her tending to a flower bush in a garden and being shocked when her gestating fetus speaks to her, imploring her “not do what you did the last time.” In one of the movie’s few moments of accidental comedy, Monroe points out to the fetus that it couldn’t possibly be the same fetus from before, to which the fetus replies “that was me; it’s always me,” which is hilarious because that’s absolutely not how pregnancy works.
Or rather, the scene would be hilarious were it not for the way that it purposefully plays up the idea of fetal personhood as a way of foreshadowing the pain and suffering a woman ends up enduring after the termination of a pregnancy. Were these ideas actually from Marilyn Monroe herself or being handled by a more skillful storyteller, you can easily see how Blonde’s handling of this subject matter might work as a frank and honest telling of one woman’s feelings about her reproductive history. But that couldn’t be further from the case, and as one of Blonde’s attempts to inhabit Monroe’s headspace, it’s one of the film’s more notable failures that really underlines how you’d be much better off just reading the book and watching some of Marylin’s movies.
Blonde is now streaming on Netflix.