Rarely have I ever felt as conflicted about a film as I do about Andrew Dominik’s most recent release, Blonde. Honestly, I am not sure I ever have been this torn. The film covers the many tragedies in the life of the American icon, Marilyn Monroe (played with utter conviction by a captivating Ana de Armas.)
‘Captivating’ is probably the perfect word to describe the film, because Blonde is a tough watch to say the least. While de Armas’ work in the film is so mesmerizing it begs you not to look away, the film’s graphic content seems to hold Marilyn Monroe, the viewers, and even the actress captive. This is no lightweight made-for-TV Monroe biopic.
Dominik takes us down such dark corridors, locks the door and throws away the key. I was left shaking my head and even briefly turning it during a film which still, weeks later, has me questioning where I ultimately stand on it. Is it a dark, stylistic take on history and fame meant to upset its audience or does it cross the line too far leaving it undeserving of praise?
As someone who knows relatively little about Monroe (and who also avoids trailers) I came into the film hoping to learn more about her as a person and to better understand the tragic existence she lived. Like Elvis, the person and the film, my knowledge of their work is much more comprehensive than the drama of the lives of the actual people behind it. The film included several chapters in Monroe’s life I had never heard of before watching. I only learned post viewing that this film not only blurs the line between fiction and fact, it often erases it, leaving viewers to fend for themselves when determining what your takeaway will be.
Based on the 2000 novel “Blonde” by Joyce Carol Oates, the film version apparently stays true to what is on the page. When all was said and done, I left the theater a bit shaken, haunted by what had unfolded before my eyes. Dominik never paints the sweet, idolic picture of Monroe many know from the memorabilia, the Andy Warhol paintings and just about everywhere else in pop culture over the last five decades. Instead, he delivers a suffocating sequence of tragic experiences strung together back to back with merciless repetition leaving little room to catch your breath. Based on my interpretation of the director’s goal, this is exactly what was intended. Which, unlike many, is one of the main reasons I do not condemn the film. It does leave me left wondering, why was this project green lit and who is it for?
Again, there is no denying that de Armas is remarkable here. The performance of her career. It shines well beyond the incredible physical transformation. This is not a surface level caricature you often find when portraying Marilyn. She conveys a complex, misunderstood woman, struggling to find herself, her true identity. There were many moments where I truly forgot it was de Armas at all. The hair and make combined with her fearless performance is impressive. It is unfortunate that many people will ever see her work. This film (which just landed on Netflix) comes handcuffed to a toxic word-of-mouth which will certainly proceed it, turning away potential viewers – and rightfully so.
In the hands of a more compassionate filmmaker this could be a heartbreaking film for Monroe fans to rally around, to come to terms with the tortured life (even if often fabricated) Monroe lived. With that said, I have a hard time believing that the same person buying the Marilyn Monroe Funko Pop figurine and Christmas ornaments is (or ever will be) ready for what is delivered on screen.
Dominik’s camera use is simply relentless. There is one shot that stands out in particular – it is long and excruciating. You will know it when you see it. It succeeds in accomplishing exactly what it intends to do, but in a fashion that is so heartless and potentially exploitative you might question why he did not try to get the point across but through different means. This is a situation where the gaze of a female director (even in an advisory role) could have benefited the film as a whole. But again, honestly, I believe the goal here is to make viewers squirm.
The film does not want to make friends. It is an attack on celebrity worship, building up and tearing down without any mercy for the person behind the image. It is an attack on the very people who would want to see a Marilyn Monroe biopic, or would buy her merch, or dress like her for costume parties without even knowing her or her world. That is why this film is not a failure. It actually succeeds in many ways.
From a technical standpoint the film is very strong. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis‘ score is hypnotizing at times, pulling viewers into the inescapable nightmare while promising a much more ethereal setting. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin is often gorgeous, delivering dreamy shots of de Armas embodying Monroe beautifully; recreating well-known moments from her film career and her most iconic imagery with precision. Unfortunately, it does not end there. We are forced to sit through some gratuitous use of the POV abortion shots and the odd reliance on CGI unborn fetuses, both steal the attention of all the quality work he delivers.
A nightmarish quality is woven throughout that extends beyond the events of Monroe’s life. Dominik’s style crosses into a David Lynchian space at times, visually tapping right into Monroe’s headspace. It is surprisingly effective, injecting creepy, surreal, and unsettling moments that alter the interpretation on what would otherwise be considered glamorous.
One of the big problems for me personally, it left me feeling sorry for Monroe, but had no idea where the truth begins or ends leaving off balance. The runtime is bloated, due in part to an extended opening act that painfully walks us through the youngest days of Norma Jeane Mortenson long before Marilyn is even an idea in the minds of seedy Hollywood execs.
Adding to the length is the loose narrative. The film revisits some of those early days via flashback way too many times, including sending us into Monroe’s womb to hang out with a CGI fetus for seemingly endless stretches. It is repetition that will make the film unbearable for some viewers. It is a repeat offender, we have to witness the most shocking and heart-wrenching moments several times.
This film is not for people looking for your standard biopic and should definitely be avoided by Marilyn Monroe fans (no matter how great de Armas is) who do not want their vision of her forever tarnished. This is an engrossing portrait of the woman’s life — which is NOT enough reason to watch it, because it is brutal at the same. If you decide to watch, please be warned, there’s uncomfortable imagery throughout that is tough to shake – do not take that warning lightly. This is a horror film of sorts and like a horror film, this is about what viewers will tolerate. Similar to Requiem Of A Dream, it has something to say, but audiences have to stomach a good deal of pain long enough to hear it.
Perhaps the simple solution to present the film’s ideas was to base it on a fully fictional character that only reminds viewers of Monroe – even if that would defeat the director’s intentions. Even that would not fix the most cruel elements, but it is a start. Taking such liberties with the life of a beloved figure only to see her tortured, abused, and viciously dragged through mud with no roadmap to the truth feels irresponsible. For that reason, the unavoidable uproar will be deserved.
The powerful themes of identity, human fragility and the need to truly belong are constant throughout Blonde. Besides de Armas, they are the film’s biggest strength. Dominik incorporates some impressive and subtle filmmaking touches to convey this, even if they are swallowed by the bolder, obvious swings. With that said, the film has kept me thinking about Norma Jeane, the woman left behind after the creation of the persona known as Marilyn Monroe, who has again been replaced by the blonde bombshell persona plastered on memorabilia bought by millions who know her only the image, nothing more. Lost somewhere is Norma Jeane, a fragile person who possesses the same needs we all do. A truly tragic figure.
Speaking of tragic figures, I feel sorry for de Armas who gives this film her all and based on interviews appears to be very proud of her work. She deserves to be. People have claimed she has been exploited. I certainly hope that is not the case. More so, hopefully the discourse does not strip her of her agency. It must be disheartening to have your work shredded as it has been on social media.
Blonde left me with a plethora of questions. Mainly, who is the film’s target audience? Is it fair to the source material? To Monroe? To the audience? Blonde is facing fierce criticism which started with critics and will certainly continue once the public has access to the film.
As tough as it is to watch, so much of this film worked for me. I found myself saddened by the journey long after the film credits rolled. de Armas is deeply moving, transcending the encroaching viciousness that could consume her performance, tapping directly into the vulnerable humanity behind the veneer to adding a layer of sweetness to a harsh cocktail of commiseration.
The film works best as a tragic cautionary tale, especially in a world where everyone is trained to seek their own fame and superficial acceptance. Blonde presents is intricate and compelling, even as it delves into excess. They just happened to be conveyed in a fashion many people will find near impossible to sit through. That can be read as a knock against or a testament to the film.
Blonde also stars: Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Julianne Nicholson, Xavier Samuel, Lily Fisher, and Toby Huss. You can watch it now exclusively on Netflix.
You should have read the book.