What is society's fascination with Marilyn Monroe? Sixty years after her death of an overdose and many are still exploring or in some cases exploiting her life. Rather it be Kim Kardashian ruining the historic dress that she sang "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy in or Andrew Dominik's new film about her, it seems Monroe will never escape being a commodity. One almost has to remind themselves she was a complex person. Blonde attempts to humanize her and explore the pain in Monroe's life but Dominik can't help to commodify her in the process.
Based on the book by Joyce Carol Oates, a "fictional novel" it should be mentioned, Blonde stars Ana de Armas in a stunning transformation into Monroe. In fact, the thing that will most likely last the longest from the film is her incredible facsimile of the actress or at least a version of her. The breathy voice, the vulnerable openness, the duality of herself, and the "daddy" issues are the DNA of this portrayal of the legend. This doesn't take away from the makeup, costume designers, or from de Armas who bring Marilyn Monroe to life with uncanny accuracy. It is a knockout performance but sadly it is lost in a hollow, narrative mess that does disserve to both de Armas and Monroe.
Blonde is largely a series of episodic vignettes about the abuse Monroe faced. Early on, the film distills her troubled mental state from the formative trauma of her childhood. Her father abandoned Norma Jeane Baker and her delusional, troubled mother (Julianne Nicholson). A photo portrait of her father haunts her. Her mother believes he will come back, telling Norma that he is a Hollywood bigshot. For the rest of the nearly three-hour film, Monroe calls every man she is with "Daddy," reducing genuine pain to a series of abusive male characters. While Monroe may have had so-called daddy issues, the film offers little payoff for this theme that dominates so much of the film. In real life, Norma grew up in a series of bad households and had many abusers, both male and female. To reduce these formative years to simple reasoning for her attraction to bad men is frustrating. These early scenes set up a pattern that the film repeats over and over. The culmination of this renders Monroe little more than a victim. We never see her achievements, the pride she had for her work, and the cleverness of her performances. Monroe had great comic timing but that key defining trait of her acting isn't shown.
To be fair, I don't believe Dominik is interested in a standard biopic trajectory here. He creates some powerful moments while wallowing in abuse. There is a stunning sequence of Monroe on a plane, drugged up and passed through a series of gigs before collapsing back on the plane. While moments like these are often visually sophisticated, they often miss a larger meaning. Dominik took great care to recreate famous photographs only to fill the scenes with reductive character traits. Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) is an abusive, jealous hothead. Arthur Miller (Adrian Brody) is snobbish and selfish.
Blonde is impeccably designed with intense attention to detail. The makeup used are replicas of Monroe's preferred products for example. The cinematography is some of the most impressive of the year, changing film stocks often. However, there is no rhyme or reason to these changes other than the attempt to accurately replicate a photograph. The film has so much care taken to achieve its look but the script simply hits the same emotional note over and over. This makes the film miserable to watch even when it can be stunningly rendered.
I left Blonde beat up and confused. Days later that had turned to frustration. The NC-17 rating feels easy to avoid. De Armas is often topless for no clear reason. The clearest reason for the rating is likely a scene where Monroe is forced to fellate John F. Kennedy while he watches a rocket launch on TV. It is a strange scene that seems to deploy a crude dick joke while our lead character is being debased. It is moments like these that make me feel like I can't get a handle on Dominik's intent. Stylish but empty, Blonde is best seen as further proof of de Armas's talents.