Watched by all. Seen by none.
I’m not a fan.
Of Blonde, I mean.
Marilyn Monroe, I like just fine — The Misfits (1961) is my favorite film of hers, which should surprise precisely no one. Andrew Dominik, Chopper (2000), I like just fine; in point of fact, up until now, I’d have argued that he’d never made a bad film, which is a rare achievement. One impossible to maintain, too, so perhaps the fact that his hammer has fallen on a dud round at this stage in his career should be met with relief; he’s directed his creative nadir, and now he can get back to making good movies.
Blonde is not a good movie. Not because it sullies the Monroe legacy; she’s a historical figure, dead 60 years, and not one living relative or acquaintance has arced up to my knowledge — which is more than can be said for Dahmer (2022) and The Stranger (2022) — but Blonde seems to be worth more column inches. Not because it’s misogynistic or exploitative, which I haven’t really made a call on, personally. I think it depicts misogyny and intends to shock us with it as a way to highlight the Hollywood meatgrinder and that its exploitative imagery — the nudity, the violence, the laughable CiC blowjob scene — is present for that purpose. That it fails is most likely down to a failure of craft rather than intent, although, in interviews, Dominik seems keen to muddy the waters, playing up a kind of macho auteur persona that doesn’t really cut the mustard these days. De Armas, for her part, seems completely cool with the film and her work in it.
But Blonde is shallow and vapid, and its desire to shock seems to supersede its desire to do anything meaningful or interesting with the Monroe story, either as a biography or as a more mythic example of that great American archetype of the title. You know The Blonde — beautiful, desirable, unreachable, sexually adventuress but childlike, dead young, and tragically (but safely) so. Joyce Carol Oates always averred that her novel, upon which the film is based, was never meant to be a straight biography but rather an attempt to use the broad facts of Monroe’s life to unpack the myth of the Blonde and look at the way pop culture devours young women, and discuss the way the demands of fame can build an impenetrable shell beneath which the authentic self withers, every discrete thematic element buoyed and hurried by a river of misogyny as we see young Norma Jeane Mortenson abused, beaten, and/or raped by almost every man who can get his hands around — and some measure of power over — her.
Dominik’s film is much the same but loses sight of its intent in favor of fascination with its own technique. So, we follow young Norma/Marilyn from her fraught childhood with her abusive, mentally unwell mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), to her early days as a pin-up model, to her startling success as a movie star, along the way taking in an idyllic early polyamorous relationship with Golden Age Nepo Babies Cass (son of Charlie) Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), unsatisfactory marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller (Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody, their characters only referred to as The Ex-Athlete and The Writer), rape at the hands of JFK (Caspar Phillipson) among others, drug dependency, dissolution, disassociation, and death at the age of 36.
It is A Lot, and Dominik stages the sprawling action of the story in an unsettling manner, marrying hallucinatory, subjective, and often grotesque imagery with painstakingly recreated — and sometimes literally revisited — locations and events from Monroe’s life. The craft on display is impressive; we’ve known Dominik to be a bold visual stylist since Chopper, and he hasn’t lost a step here, constructing a visual language with cinematographer Chayse Irvin that vacillates between the documentarian and the queasily hypnotic – which is what you want in a film where one scene presents a forced abortion from a camera POV within the birth canal (at a later point a different fetus directly begs our heroine for its life, citing the earlier abortion — make of that what you will).
But it all starts to wear you down after a while, devolving into a loosely-hinged, lurid montage of abuse and depravity, with Ana de Armas copping it relentlessly. She’s great, it must be said; de Armas is eminently watchable in pretty much anything, and her embodying Monroe was always going to be worth showing up for. Despite the film’s almost perverse disinterest in her interiority — a weird thing to be able to say about a character who provides voice-over narration — she imbues Monroe with some measure of dimensionality, something more than surface sheen and non-sequiturs.
But for all its gaudy excess and its determination to really rub our faces in Monroe’s suffering, Blonde fails to dramatize its themes to any great effect, to the point where it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which themes it wants to forefront. There’s a vague stab at tying all Monroe’s woes back to the primal wound struck by her abusive mother, but it doesn’t really fly. By the time we get to the end, we might know we started at the beginning but could never sketch a map from one point to the other — in between is just a mess. And while messy excess has its appeal, in this case, it’s not enough.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson