2022 | rated NC-17 | starring Ana De Armas, Bobby Cannavale, Adrien Brody | written & directed by Andrew Dominik | 2h 46m |
Ana De Armas gives it her all in the performance of her life in Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s bio-pic of Marilyn Monroe that hits the lows and lows of the blonde Hollywood bombshell’s life from Norma Jean’s degraded relationship with her impoverished mother to searching for her long lost father to her various abuses at the hands of studio executives and the creation of Marylyn as a public figure to her relationships with famous Hollywood legacy heirs, Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller and her affair with John F. Kennedy.
Teenage boys can be horndogs. Most of them grow out of that phase when they grow up, get a job, have to pay bills and raise a family. However, some of them go to Hollywood and end up in a system where they never have to grow out of it, pretending that the business requires them to sell sex and use their position to use and abuse women and talent. It happened with Miramax in the 90s and it happened to Marilyn Monroe and Veronica Lake in the 40s and 50s. That this particular institution is regularly telling people how to live, that it somehow shapes and guides representation and defines cultural norms, is a complete joke. So I don’t doubt the facts on display here and I don’t doubt that Norma Jean’s life was a tragic and traumatic one. I do take issue with the way Andrew Dominik tells this story.
Dominik (who directed The Assassinating of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a movie of great lyrical beauty and one of the stand-outs of the last decade) mounts his biography more like a highlight reel of Marilyn’s abuses in 360 degree, close-up, detail. Unlike Jesse James which found beauty in nature, Blonde finds torture and torment everywhere it looks. Dominik crafts a suffocating Misery Porn film lingering on the lurid details and De Armas’ tears using all the same cinematic and atmospheric tools at the disposal of a horror film. Blonde is visually impressive. Some of the cinematic flourishes I like was a transition from Marilyn making love on a bed to towering over Niagara falls and a technically impressive scene that transitions from her drugged out on a plane to walking the movie isle at a premiere without a cut. The movie also shifts between aspect ratios and camera styles – still one moment and hand-held the next as it moves back and forth between casual observer and rushing to her aid. You might call the entire evocative box masterful if it all weren’t so transparent and tacky in it’s manipulation. It’s like being beaten over the head with a sledgehammer after you’ve already laid down and conceded the point.
This interminable slog goes on for 2 and a half hours. Blonde gets on a high horse about Hollywood exploitation of Norma Jean in a way that continues to exploit her image and objectify De Armas that increasingly blurs the line to see how far it can get away with in the name of satire. I’m a massive fan of movies that force us to see or participate in something to call attention to it, to make us question what we are watching and why – but there is a skill to it that that Dominik loses his grip on here.
So how do you dramatize this topic? Firstly, I’d like to see a 3-dimensional Marilyn Monroe. So much of Blonde is a clip show of traumatic moments, leaping from one to the next, removing context and agency from it’s lead. I’d like to see the connective tissue between them. I’d like to see why Norm Jean got into acting, why she stayed in it, why she made certain decisions and the benefits (or perceived benefits) that motivated her sacrifices. This movie has not one, but two forced abortion scenes – both from a POV inside her vagina – without establishing why it would be bad for Monroe’s image to be seen pregnant for 9 months in the first place. It shows John DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) beating and mistreating her without showing why they married in the first place. Conversely, it shows Arther Miller (Adrien Brody, great here) impressed with Norma Jean’s intelligent interpretation of his writing and respecting her mind where others didn’t – and then the marriage simply vanished from the film. Some Like it Hot is a comedy classic and Billy Wilder a respected director, did she even enjoy that movie? Nope, not according to Blonde.
Worse, this movie takes the tactic of saying the system is corrupt, without indicting individual producers and studio heads involved in the rapes and abuses. It has an “everyone is the problem so nobody is the problem” theme. The film works only as a mechanical tool to show 1940s Hollywood as a machine that grinds people up and spits them out. It uses Marilyn Monroe to make the point because she was hurt and betrayed by those that were supposed to love her the most, but this movie has no love for Norma Jean. It only finds her interesting to the extent that it can use her to make it’s point. True exploitation.
Finally, Dominik runs this odd visual motif through the film moving back and forth between black & white and colorized scenes. I spent a good amount of time trying to find the theme behind it. A better movie would have had a thematic reason for doing this – say present day scenes in color and flashbacks in black and white. In this movie it should have been used to show the two battling personas of Norma Jean and Marilyn, black and white when she was Marilyn in the Hollywood world and color when she was Norma Jean in her personal life – something like that. Instead there seems to be no pattern, rhyme or reason behind it. Just filmmaking pretention. I’d rather watch a Saw movie than this. Those are at least honest about their intentions.