Review: Blonde

With its attention-grabbing NC-17 rating for “some sexual content,” Blonde is apt to get comparisons to pornography by those who haven’t seen it — or those who don’t make it past the threesome in its first act. But Andrew Dominik’s definitely-not-a-biopic drama about Marilyn Monroe isn’t porn porn. Instead, this grim adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel is almost pure misery porn, telling a story of a life lived in almost constant pain from lonely childhood to premature death. It’s not the frequent nudity that edges Blonde toward exploitation; it’s the film’s nearly singular focus on the overlapping tragedies of the icon’s life — or at least this fictionalized version of it — dragging her and the audience through awful moment after awful moment, which all start to blend together after almost three hours. 

Oates’ novel imagined the details of Monroe’s life, and similarly Blonde probably shouldn’t be used as the primary source for your understanding of the starlet. Dominik’s film takes for granted — or doesn’t care — that the audience has some awareness of her biography and culture, crediting Adrien Brody as The Playwright and Bobby Cannavale as The Ex-Athlete, though a cursory knowledge of her biography indicates they’re actually Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio, respectively. Blonde isn’t interested in sharing the facts or getting them right; instead, this is an impressionistic but quite vivid portrait of the elusive real-life person Marilyn Monroe. 

Dominik bookends Blonde with Marilyn’s absent father. In the film’s first scene, set in 1933, her mentally ill mother (Julianne Nicholson) gives young Marilyn, née Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher), a photo of the man. A terrifying episode soon separates mother and daughter, but Blonde isn’t too concerned with her larger childhood and adolescent experiences as Norma Jeane, skipping ahead to her early years  in Hollywood as Marilyn (Ana de Armas). Decades later, her father is never far from her thoughts, even though he remains far from her daily life as she grows up into the actress we instantly recognize. De Armas embodies the qualities that made Marilyn such a star, radiating a beauty and magnetism that few could resist and practically everyone — including studio heads, photographers, lovers, and the audience — wanted to consume without any thought for what it would leave for Marilyn herself. Blonde plays all the hits, including her marriages, drug use, and mesmerizing appearances in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot, and The Seven Year Itch, so the only surprises come when someone actually doesn’t treat her terribly in the movie. 

Blonde wants us to feel sorry for Marilyn, who rightly chafes at being thought of as an object by almost every man she encounters. Heads turn in succession as she walks by, in a leering, nightmarish version of the wave. Everyone underestimates her, surprised at her mentions of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, as though this stunning woman can’t possibly have read a book or understood its larger meaning. And we do feel sorry for her, because what we’re witnessing is almost pure suffering, punctuated by only a few brief moments of happiness over the course of an entire lifetime. 

De Armas said of the script, “I found that to be the most daring, unapologetic, and feminist take on her story that I had ever seen.” Two out of three ain’t bad, ma’am, but the film’s version of Marilyn seems to see her as much of an object as practically everyone else does. Yet instead of the purely sexual lens most see her through, the film grounds her existence only in relation to her absent father and her grief over multiple lost pregnancies, rather than who she is. She poutily calls each of her (much older) husbands, “Daddy,” and there wasn’t a single time it didn’t make me squirm. That was likely the point, but there’s little subtlety in how Blonde handles the issue. And if that lack of subtlety bothers you, just wait for the multiple shots from the uterus and vagina and the literal baby talk coming from a fetus.

For a film that wants to argue that there was more substance to Monroe than just her beauty, Blonde is far more focused on style. You feel Dominik’s directorial hand over every frame in a way that’s often missing from most big movies; there is absolutely a person behind the camera, rather than just a studio or franchise machine that dictates a muddy palette and uninspired shots. Each of DP Chayse Irvin’s images are stunning, whether in color or black and white, which the film switches between from scene to scene. The sound design (especially in early scenes) is remarkable, awe-inspiring when combined with the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Blonde is a beautifully made film in every element of its craft, but it is still grueling viewing. 

Dominik has previously focused on the theme of modern legends in both The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Chopper — and more broadly the legend of U.S. capitalism in Killing Them Softly — so centering one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons seems like a natural fit for the writer-director. The theme allows for larger commentary on Hollywood, America, and how we treat those we idolize, but Dominik is also interested in the duality of fame: who a person is to the world and who they really are. De Armas ably inhabits both Marilyn Monroe and Norma Jeane, demonstrating particular nuance when Marilyn allows the mask to briefly drop. Yet for all the centering of this idea, Dominik doesn’t truly seem that interested in humanizing the star and treating her with the dignity a person deserves. Blonde condemns the treatment Marilyn endured from practically everyone, but it also perpetuates it, decades later. 

With Dominik at the helm, Blonde has its merits in its visual style, technical prowess, and compelling performances, but it’s tough to argue that it’s worth sitting through for most audiences. Its runtime is punishing, but not nearly as much as the treatment of the character. Blonde is not the type of film that one feels glad to have endured; instead, it leaves a lingering sense of disgust and sadness at the continued objectification of Marilyn Monroe, even by a movie that purports to criticize it.

C

“Blonde” is now playing in limited release. It debuts on Netflix Wednesday.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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