Few films have proven as hard to parse my feelings about as Blonde. On the one hand, it has a tremendous lead performance at its core. On the other hand, so much of what happens is off-putting, questionably done, and even vile. Yet, it’s all clearly done in the name of art. So, you kind of go around in circles. At the end of the day, I defer to the artists and their intent, which is to make you feel for Marilyn Monroe. You clearly do, even if the movie attempts to make you feel as awful as possible. Hardly your standard prestige biopic, there are major highs and major lows here, making for a flick you won’t soon forget, even if, honestly, you may well want to.
Blonde is a real test of how much you’re willing to give an auteur leeway. It’s a commentary on the corrosive power of exploitation that doesn’t skimp on its own exploitative qualities. If not for the quality of the acting and the artistic merit of it all, this could be a borderline unbearable experience. In fact, for many it still will be.
A fictionalized chronicle of Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas), we meet her when she was just young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher), already the subject of abuse from her troubled mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Told her absentee dad is a famous Hollywood icon, it begins her lifelong search for a father or father figure, which would repeatedly get her into trouble. “Discovered” and set on a course to become an actress, she hopes it will not only get her answers, but give her a happy ending. Sadly, things won’t go that way for Norma Jeane, renamed Marilyn and reimagined as a sexpot.
Made a Hollywood starlet, industry titans abuse and objectify her, while an emotional/erotic pairing with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) provides short lived happiness. She finds temporary affection from such figures as The Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale) and The Playwright (Adrien Brody), who she’d marry, but heartbreak is always on the horizon. By the time she’s involved with The President (Caspar Phillipson), drugs have taken their toll, alongside all of the other atrocities. It’s no spoiler to suggest things aren’t going to end well for her, but even so, it’s incredibly tragic to witness, almost in slow motion.
Ana de Armas is extraordinary here, no question about it. Largely allowed to speak in her natural dialect, she instead embodies Marilyn Monroe through looks and just how she feels. There are scenes where you’d be hard pressed to differentiate if it’s de Armas or Monroe on the screen. She’s put through the wringer, without a doubt, stripped naked and repeatedly subjected to all kinds of abuse. Through it all, however, she connects with the character, as well as the woman. A brave and emotionally demanding performance, it’s bravura acting from start to finish. Adrien Brody and Julianne Nicholson are the best of the supporting players, but all are in de Armas’ shadow. The rest of the cast includes Ned Bellamy, Garret Dillahunt, Toby Huss, Scoot McNairy, Sara Paxton, and more.
Filmmaker Andrew Dominik is at his most divisive, which is saying something. Visually, there’s a lot going on, with Dominik and cinematographer Chayse Irvin throwing a ton at you in their largely black and white presentation. Dominik’s direction never really coalesces into one particular style, but there’s style for days. Plus, the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is positively haunting. At the same time, his screenplay, adapting the Joyce Carol Oates novel, is all over the place. For a work that asks you to watch Monroe be repeatedly abused and wants to comment on said exploitation, there aren’t enough moments that feel absolutely necessary. Some scenes work incredibly well. Others are completely lacking in meaning, harrowing as they might be. Additionally, the pacing of Blonde is very slack, making you feel the creeping towards three hour length. It’s Dominik’s casting of de Armas that pays off and keeps this from being an unbearable experience.
Blonde is not going to be for a lot of people. Honestly, it’s not really for anyone, as Marilyn Monroe fans will be mortified. At the same time, Ana de Armas is so tremendously great here, while Andrew Dominik is such a singular filmmaker, it’s not the kind of flick you can just dismiss. It makes sense that Netflix is a bit puzzled about what to do about the work, but it’s certainly one you won’t easily get out of your head.