REASON: An impressionistic depiction of Marilyn Monroe’s (Ana de Armas) life from her early days as Norma Jeane Mortenson to her eventual crowning as perhaps the greatest sex symbol of the 20th century.
REVIEW: Andrew Dominick Blonde is a film to struggle with. It’s a work of art whose craftsmanship cannot be diminished, but it’s also an incredibly tough watch that ranks as one of the most intense, harrowing films of recent years. While the NC-17 rating is ridiculous, it’s still not for the faint of heart, shining a light on the sinister side of celebrity and the psychological and physical costs of being a sex goddess.
A thing Blonde is not a factual account of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Like the book by Joyce Carol Oates, on which it is based, the film is an impressionistic fictionalization of Monroe’s life. Some of the more provocative moments, including a sequence where John F. Kennedy rapes her, will be thoroughly discussed, but again, this is not the biography some may see it as. Instead, it’s an indictment of how society treated Marilyn as little more than a sex object throughout her life (even before she became “Marilyn Monroe”), with no one getting away easily.
Monroe suffers greatly from the moment she reaches Hollywood, as her job interview with 20th Century Fox consists of a silent Daryl F. Zanuck sodomizing the actress and then sending her on her way with a new contract at the studio. As played by de Armas, Monroe herself is a deeply wounded woman who perhaps adopts the girlish, spiritual persona the film portrays here as a reaction to never having had a father. Instead, he is a godlike figure described by her neurotic mother (Julianne Nicholson – in a frighteningly intense performance) as being from Hollywood. Punishing Norma Jeane by trying to drown her in a bathtub, she sees her as little more than what kept her separated from the man she loved—or so she convinces herself.
The film has a concept where Marilyn often receives letters from a man claiming to be her father, which may be real or also a figment of her imagination. The film shows her, disturbingly, trying to fill the gap by taking up with a series of older men she marries, disturbingly calling them “Dad” when they make love. One is Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who is a nice enough guy at first until jealousy turns him into a violent lynchpin. She’s luckier with Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller, who takes her intellect seriously (she’s depicted as extraordinarily well-read), but he can’t resist using their relationship in his work.
Despite the great co-stars, Blonde is de Armas’ film, and she disappears into the role, doing a fine job of adopting Monroe’s famously airy voice. She looks incredible and Dominik cast her well, as you have to have someone extraordinarily beautiful in the role to pull off the role. You believe it when you see pretty much every man she meets laughing at her, even a priest at one point. Women don’t treat her better, and Blonde makes it seem like Monroe never had one person, besides maybe Miller, who actually cared for her.
In terms of relationships, the film focuses largely on a menage-a-trois with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr. Here the film, as it often does, plays fast and loose with the facts, with a major plot point centered around one of their deaths, even though both men outlived Marilyn by many years. Blonde is probably the least historically accurate biopic ever, which is why this should rightly be considered historical fiction.
The craftsmanship is brilliant, with Dominik shooting the film mostly in black and white with a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, although it varies and the film occasionally switches to color. The score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and their work is evocative and avant-garde, giving the film a surreal, almost David Lynch-esque feel.
The film will arguably be most controversial in its depictions of Monroe’s abortions, where she undergoes a few graphic procedures in the film, none of which appear to be of her own choosing. These traumatic moments probably gave the film its rating (although it is not particularly gruesome). Still, to be sure, in the so-called golden age of Hollywood, stars’ bodies were rarely their own, and the film portrays that in a way that may not be fact-based in Monroe’s case, but feels legitimate.
Finally, Blonde is not a movie you “enjoy”. It’s a complicated, challenging watch, but it’s also a stunning piece of art, and kudos to Netflix for letting Dominik make something so uncompromising. Oscar-wise, it will probably be too cool for the Academy or indeed a mainstream audience. But if you have a strong stomach, it’s a lot to watch, and de Armas is extraordinary in his best showcase yet.