Written and directed by Andrew Dominik
Marilyn Monroe (née Norma Jeane) was raped, tricked, ridiculed, manipulated, beaten, tormented, terrorized and ultimately destroyed by the film industry, society and those closest to her. A terrible fate that shouldn’t be suffered by anyone, only to be preferred to watching the film Andrew Dominik has made about her life suggesting the above.
Okay, I won’t say bodily and mental torment is to be preferred to sitting through an almost-3-hour long movie on your couch. But I would suggest people avoid the latter if that movie is Blonde.
Because Blonde is bad art. Yes, art, because Dominik’s film isn’t template filmmaking, a connect-the-dots piece of storytelling born in a studio boardroom. There’s a vision here, a point-of-view and creative chances taken, but what a sorry load of exploitative, bad faith misery porn all that has given birth to.
It retells the life and times of the person we know as the movie star/sex icon/dorm room poster decal Marilyn Monroe. We begin with scenes of her growing up with a mentally ill mother, who tells Norma (our star-to-be’s real name) that her father was a movie star, unable to ever see her. Seeing the abuse, we feel the damage being unloved can do to a not-yet-formed person. Dominik then fast-forwards through the rest of the formative years where personhood is formed to Marilyn arriving at the cusp of stardom, still a girl, still innocent, but with an unwitting precocious sexuality that men waste no time preying upon.
This sexuality, this body, is Marilyn’s legacy, according to Blonde, because what follows is the story of a short life indexed by fuckings and the men behind them: The rapist studio execs, the coercive fuckboys, the leering hyenas eyeing her like meat. The men who wanted Marilyn, but got Norma, and hated her for it. Throughout, we get no sense of Norma’s inner life, only Marilyn rendered every bit the object the world perceives her to be, like some discarded mannequin pulled from a department store dumpster by callous teenage boys only to be further beat up. An undignified spectacle.
Dominik isn’t entirely to blame. His film is based on a Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, an epic tome that similarly to Dominik’s film makes a mental invalid of Norma Jean and a ghoulish, but sexy husk of Marilyn Monroe. Only problem here is that Dominik isn’t as good a director as Oates is a writer, and that’s not to say Dominik is bad, Oates is just that good; so while Oates could swirl around Norma Jeane’s head and dazzle you with sentence structure, and evocative passages, Domink is stuck with close-ups of Ana de Armas, cursed in the titular role, begging her to communicate it all with twitching eyebrows and a the trembling of Marilyn’s iconic upper lip mole.
It leaves every scene to bounce of Armas’ wide eyes, and she cries in just about all of them. Armas certainly looks the part, but she portrays Marilyn as a childlike-innocent no matter the scene leaving the performance as one-note as Blonde.
Fitting for a film about the schism of polished exterior and rotten interior, Dominik and cinematographer Chayse Irvin do have a striking eye for composition and dramatic set-ups, and what helps whisk the movie along is their visual artistry, which is considerable. It fully embraces the aura of Hollywood glamour even if the shots in question are of backstage areas, restaurants or suburban lawns. Ornate filmmaking meant to immortalize titans, wasted on mortal wastrels.
Dominik and Irvin do have a few goes at visualizing states of mind, be it boozy lovemaking, dissociative spells or schizophrenic episodes, but even these scenes feel void of sentiment. The end result is Blonde looking and feeling like a Lana Del Rey music video. Heavy on visual and light on integrity.
Blonde is an aggressive insult to the notion that celebrities are, in fact, people. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Blonde is a provocative treatise on the nature of fame, and a satire of the collective imagination’s fetishization of celebs? Achieved by being equally vapid and eager to scandalize?
The fact remains it’s ostensible a portrait of a living person, who nonetheless is shown to have no agency, physical or intellectually, with only neglect to squirm underneath. Is it interesting to watch someone reduced to empty caricature for multiple hours? The answer is no.
Blonde is a hollow film with a hollow person at its center. One who perhaps was a person, but we’ll never know, because Andrew Dominik treats her like someone he once saw on a dorm room poster and wondered what she looked like naked and what sordid acts he believed her to be capable of.