Review: ‘Blonde’ is the beautifully gut-wrenching portrayal of an abused American sweetheart
Review: "Blonde" a gut-wrenching portrayal of an American sweetheart
Disclaimer: The following article contains references to drugs, suicide, and sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
I hesitate to describe Blonde as a psychological thriller, but Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe biopic starring Ana de Armas has the haunting and disorienting effects of one. The film follows the life of Norma Jean Baker from her childhood of abuse and neglect to her premature death by drug overdose in 1962. The timeline is fragmented and at times unclear, leaving the viewer feeling disturbed and alone right along with the heroine.
Baker was born in 1926 to a mentally unwell mother and absent father– relationships that haunt her until her death. Gladys Pearl Baker ingrains in her daughter that Norma was the reason her father abandoned them and that she is hated for it. In the film, Baker is put up for adoption after her mother attempts to drown her in the bath and is committed to a mental hospital, thus beginning Norma’s life of loneliness and instability. Her “big break” in the industry comes when she is raped in the office of the casting director who hires her for her first film. From there, Baker is launched into the stardom most attributed to her today, but the film chooses to follow her personal and social life instead, giving the audience a behind-the-scenes point of view into the tumultuous relationships and increasing pressures Baker endured.
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The film depicts Baker as a pawn in the eyes and fantasies of men, and, lacking any decent role models growing up, she takes this sadistic admiration as the approval and love she never properly received. It leads her to be taken advantage of time and time again, each time blaming herself for it. Boyfriends and husbands played by the likes of Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale and Xavier Samuel are conflated in Baker’s mind with a desperation for the father figure she never had.
The film does a spectacular job of immersing its audience in the disorienting abuse of a young actress whose life is completely out of her control and who is suffering because of it. As Baker’s mental well-being spirals, the film becomes increasingly disconcerting until, by the end, both Baker and those watching are left not knowing what is real. Details such as the erratic switch from black-and-white to color, to her husband disappearing from the plot of the movie and her life with no explanation, to something as small as the changing placement of the actress’ iconic mole make watching the movie a fever dream experience.
But that, I believe, is the point. Viewers are meant to endure the horrors that Baker withstood in her life with just about the same amount of understanding as she had; which is to say, very little.
A particularly disturbing scene is when Baker, as Monroe, has a nervous breakdown on set as a result of the undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder she suffers from, rooted in her childhood and the abuse endured during her career. As she walks off set crying and panicked, she is grabbed and held still by a group of men as they drug her via a syringe to her neck.
The viewer is left to assume that drugs like these, in combination with failing mental health, leave Baker confused and lost within her own life, just as we are when watching the film. The audience is given just enough information to put the sequences of the plot together, while still feeling like they are missing something; and, despite the overall confoundment, a combination of great writing and stellar acting makes viewers root for and cry along with the protagonist.