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DIRECTED BY: Andrew Dominik
FEATURING:, , Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, , Evan Williams
PLOT: Aspiring actress and model Norma Jeane Mortenson grows from an abused child to become the internationally famous star Marilyn Monroe, but her past demons, the heartless churn of the Hollywood system, a world of institutionalized and violent sexism, and the pressures of toxic notoriety collectively push her psyche to the brink.
COMMENTS: Shakespeare was a liar. His historical plays took extensive liberties for the sake of drama: Richard III likely didn’t kill Edward IV, the real Macbeth didn’t consult with a triumvirate of witches, and Julius Caesar never said, “Et tu, Brute?” But we’re okay with that, because they’re not intended to be rigorous historical accounts. Shakespeare used real people as a means to understand the depths of human nature, as a launching pad towards a larger truth. (To say nothing of putting a persuasive slant on history to indulge the egos of the playwright’s royal patrons.) So can we begrudge a biography of Marilyn Monroe that invents stories? That creates relationships that didn’t exist and manufactures situations based on speculation and correlation? I mean… larger truth.
The fact that Blonde plays fast and loose with history isn’t where it goes wrong. The problem is that the film has a very narrow and unilluminating notion of Marilyn’s “larger truth”: Marilyn missed never having a father. Marilyn missed never becoming a mother. Marilyn was horribly abused by everyone around her. Marilyn was sad pretty much all the time. It’s a grim account, and at nearly three hours, a pretty relentless one.
Mind you, it’s fair to question to received wisdom of Hollywood history. The film industry is legendary for the brutality it serves up to its biggest stars, and it’s a mark of Marilyn Monroe’s unique personality that her legend endures six decades after her death, despite the travails she endured. But Blonde is having none of it. As far as the film is concerned, nearly every moment of her all-too-brief life was a dreadful slog, and the film hates you for having enjoyed any of it. Are you a fan of Some Like It Hot, one of the most beloved comedies of all time? You’re a jerk, it was a miserable grind. Think the fabled subway-grate scene from The Seven-Year Itch is an iconic moment in the history of the medium? It robbed her of her very soul, you heartless bastard.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik is certain that you can’t appreciate just how much pressure Marilyn felt, how oppressive the forces against her were, and that’s how this film ends up in our bailiwick. He dramatizes crucial moments in daring and shocking ways, gleefully tossing aside Hollywood conventions or even boring standards of good taste to illustrate Marilyn’s predicament. This leads to moments that are unquestionably outrageous, but simultaneously puerile and simplistic. A sex scene takes place atop a surging waterfall that happens to be in a movie trailer that those same participants are watching (and getting off to). A fateful abortion sets up not only a dialogue between Norma Jeane and her gestating fetus but culminates in a POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina. Most notoriously, when Norma Jeane is forced to fellate the President of the United States, she disassociates from the event by imagining herself on a movie screen, which we get to see in the company of hundreds of fellow moviegoers, who happily stare up at the flickering image of an icon trying desperately not to gag on JFK’s ejaculate while clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers depict the destruction of enormous phallic structures. It’s not a staid Hollywood biopic, that’s for sure.
When he’s not trying to be audacious, Dominik’s screenplay falls back on some of the worst cliches of the form. Joe DiMaggio is never named outright, but Bobby Cannavale introduces himself as if he was quoting from the ballplayer’s Wikipedia page. The Playwright (Adrien Brody channeling Arthur Miller in one of the film’s few understated performances) is rocked to his core by a casual observation by Norma Jeane about one of his characters. And the film ends with a twist that completely recontextualizes Norma Jeane’s relationship with her absent father in an uncommonly cruel manner.
All this frustration makes what Ana de Armas is doing considerably more impressive. She’s thoroughly invested in the take on Monroe as a wide-eyed innocent who pays dearly for her guilelessness, and she manages to imbue a slavish impersonation of the actress (every line is delivered in that trademark melodically breathy tone) with genuine pathos. But at times it feels like de Armas is as much a victim of Dominik’ storytelling as Monroe was of all her tormentors. A scene where she starts to complain about her co-star being paid more threatens to unleash the strength and willpower of both actress and subject, but the fire is quickly snuffed out. Most of the time, she is asked to be a spectacular victim. To her credit, she is that.
Back to the original point: if we’re not here to delve into who Marilyn was, then what are we going for here? Primarily, it’s to make you feel bad, as bad as this version of Marilyn Monroe must have felt on an hourly basis. It’s the equivalent of those infomercials for charities that guilt you into philanthropy by showing children wallowing in the most miserable conditions imaginable. It’s undoubtedly effective, but so cynical in its execution as to undercut your sympathy. Blonde wants you to know that Marilyn Monroe was horribly exploited in her lifetime. Blonde is equally exploitative in ours.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Reductive, ghoulish and surpassingly boring, Blonde might have invented a new cinematic genre: necro-fiction… even at its most gruesome and bizarre, Blonde might be most unforgivable in what it leaves out — not regarding Monroe’s short, unhappy life but her sublime gifts.” – Ann Hornaday, Washington Post (contemporaneous)