Blonde is a movie that I love on an aesthetic level and loathe on a moral one. The life and troubled times of Marilyn Monroe have been the fodder for multiple films, from Goodbye, Norma Jean, to Norma Jean & Marilyn, to My Week with Marilyn. Countless biographies exist, too. Her short life has been picked apart and put back together again. It's beyond time to let her rest in peace. Nevertheless, here's the visually dazzling new work from Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), which doesn't just delve into her life's tragedies, it wallows in them. There may not be a more profoundly or pointlessly depressing film this year.
Ana de Armas plays the screen legend, but the story begins with Marilyn (Norma Jean at this point) as a child, living with an abusive mother (Julianne Nicholson) who falsely tells her there's a rich father up in the Hollywood hills, waiting to see her some day. We are led to believe this lie, together with the desire for a healthy male role model, becomes the source of her lifelong demons. After all, she calls every man she has a serious relationship with "Daddy.”
Instead of being a straight biopic, Blonde is presented as a fractured life experienced through a fractured mind. The predictable elements are here -- her transformation into "Marilyn Monroe" and subsequent rise to fame, an abusive marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), another marriage to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), etc. -- although it's not linear so much as impressionistic. We move from one episode to another, often abruptly. The goal is to make her life seem like a disorienting blur, as much of it must have seemed to her.
In every case, the focus is on how Marilyn suffered. Each traumatic event is shown in stark, unflinching detail. Being sexually assaulted on a studio "casting couch." Getting beaten by DiMaggio. Several abortions. Drug dependency. If it was awful and it happened to Monroe, the movie depicts it. Sexual trauma is a recurring theme. Ana de Armas is frequently nude onscreen, carrying out everything from a threesome to an extended session of fellatio on John F. Kennedy, who uses her as a distraction from the Bay of Pigs incident. The film even holds fans culpable, suggesting that having to perpetually live up to the "bombshell' designation was a form of violation.
With a 166-minute running time, the constant suffering and sexual degradation of Marilyn becomes oppressive to watch. Dominik does himself no favors with a few tasteless shots. In one scene, the fetus Marilyn is about to abort speaks to her. In another, the camera shows us an interior view of her womb as a doctor inserts a speculum to begin the procedure. We can see him peeking in through her uterine walls. What purpose does this serve? None that I can tell.
For as exhausting as the film is on that level, other parts of Blonde are remarkable, starting with the performance from de Armas. The actress does captivating work, showing the Norma Jean inside the Marilyn. She gradually falls apart on camera, inferring Monroe's mounting psychological damage and desperate longing for help. Best of all, her work never once seems like an impersonation. She strips away the public image, allowing us to see a representation of the true person rather than the glamorous exterior. After this film, de Armas is firmly solidified as one of our top current actresses.
Despite the aforementioned tacky shots, Dominik has moments of amazing clarity in his conception. One of the best scenes is set on the red carpet of Some Like It Hot. As fans and paparazzi scream Marilyn's name, their faces grow subtly distorted, letting us feel how terrifying the adulation/obsession of the masses is. Another scene begins with male crew members on the set of The Seven-Year Itch watching with enthusiasm as she performs the famous "blowing skirt" shot. The crowd starts to grow until there are men stretched out as far as the eye can see. We grasp how she becomes a sexual icon in that moment and how it's the precise point at which no one will ever see Norma Jean again.
There's a lot to admire in Blonde, from stellar production, set, and costume designs, to the supporting work from Brody and Cannavale, to an effective examination of fame's toll. And, of course, there's the fearlessness of Ana de Armas. But, working from Joyce Carol Oates' novel, Dominik focuses too heavily on the suffering, and his artistic impulses -- changing aspect ratios, switching from black-and-white to color, etc. -- are distractions from the very human-centered work his star is doing. Like its subject, the film is ultimately a little lost.
out of four
Blonde is rated NC-17 for some sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 46 minutes.