We’ve seen several attempts at bringing at least some portion of Marilyn Monroe‘s complicated and ultimately tragic life to the big screen. The latest comes from writer-director Andrew Dominik who has chosen to go with a fictionalized take on the life of the iconic American actress, somewhat similar to what Pablo Larraín did with Diana, Princess of Wales in last year’s “Spencer”. What we end up with here is a dour and depressing 2 hours and 45 minutes of misery and despair.
“Blonde” is a problematic psychological drama that’s adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s far from a plot driven movie, instead playing like a pieced together series of imagery and vignettes. And while its intent may be to put us inside Marilyn’s skin so that we can experience her life the way she did, the movie remains so intensely focused on her suffering that key aspects of her humanity never make it to the screen. These missing pieces ensure that we never get a clear picture of who Marilyn Monroe truly was.
Because of Dominik’s approach, we don’t really learn anything new about Marilyn. Instead we’re forced to watch pain and exploitation that we already knew existed. So rather than giving Norma Jeane a deserved respite, “Blonde” just runs her through the wringer yet again. I certainly don’t think that’s Dominik’s intent. He has bigger themes on his mind. But his film comes across as cold and endlessly cruel to a woman whose life has often been defined by cruelty. And if my count is right, Dominik only gives her one lone scene in the entire overly long 166 minutes that features any semblance of true happiness.
The film’s star Ana de Armas deserves a lot of credit for exquisitely capturing Marilyn Monroe’s glamor and her vulnerability. But sadly the script doesn’t go much further than that. Dominik only seems interested in honing in on her unraveling life. We see Monroe’s anxiety, her fraying mental health, her descent into drugs and alcohol. We’re shown misogyny, sexual assault, and physical abuse. Through it all, de Armas disappears into her character, and we never doubt it’s Marilyn Monroe we’re seeing on screen. Unfortunately she’s confined to Dominik’s strict vision.
Beginning in 1933 Los Angeles, Dominik establishes how the trajectory of Marilyn’s life was shaped by her traumatic childhood. She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson and grew up with an abusive mother (a really good Julianne Nicholson) who was a paranoid schizophrenic and an absent father who haunts Marilyn throughout the film. But the bulk of the story takes place through the 1950s as Norma Jeane Mortenson transforms from magazine and calendar cover-girl to the biggest celebrity in all of Hollywood.
But once again, Dominik isn’t really interested in Marilyn’s rise to fame. He doesn’t seem to care about her qualities as an actress or even a woman. Instead “Blonde” is all about chronicling her decline in depressing detail by stitching together scene after scene of mental and/or physical anguish. There are some standout moments such as when we see the real Norma Jeane expressing her feelings about her studio-made Marilyn Monroe persona. And there are numerous sequences that, on their own, are impactful. If only the movie was more cohesive and worked better as a whole.
In fairness, it’s completely true that “Blonde” is all about the dehumanization of Marilyn Monroe by the industry, the public, and everyone in between. That’s why it’s so grim and torturous. But that doesn’t erase the film’s missteps, nor does it excuse its own decisions, many of which do nothing but drag Monroe through the mud. I’m talking about bizarre inventions of its own, such as Marilyn being involved in a throuple with the party-going sons of Charlie Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson (Evan Williams). As if documenting her own sins and consequences weren’t enough, the choice was made to needlessly add some new ones.
And what of the film’s much talked about NC-17 rating? The push to make “Blonde” racier does more to draw attention to the movie than bring anything meaningful to Marilyn Monroe’s story or the bigger themes Dominik is interested in. The most explicit scenes simply adds to the long list of indignities the movie puts the troubled Hollywood star through.
One thing you can’t knock is the craft behind the movie. Dominik has an incredible eye for framing shots, capturing emotion through his lens, and creating images that are both beautiful and hard to watch at the same time. There are several techniques that enhance the film, such as Dominik’s use of different aspect ratios. And there is his choice of oscillating between color and black-and-white. It’s something I could never get in sync with, but it does offer some visually impressive transitions from one scene to the next.
Without question “Blonde” works best as an examination of celebrity status, exploitation, and self-destruction rather than an actual treatment on the life of Marilyn Monroe. It can’t be stressed enough – this is no biopic. It’s a work of fiction milking from the fame of a fallen Hollywood star. But by using Marilyn Monroe’s name, likeness, and troubled history to explore its own themes, you could say “Blonde” is doing the very thing it’s critiquing, just in a slyly different way. And that turns out to be a hurdle the movie can never quite clear. “Blonde” hits Netflix September 28th.