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You might feel like you need a shower after Blonde, but hey, at least it’s not bland. In his first narrative feature in 10 years, Andrew Dominik brings intoxicating visual style and a voyeuristic leer to Joyce Carol Oates’ 700-plus page biographical fiction novel of the same name. A mythic fable about Marilyn Monroe as an unwanted child desired by millions, passed around by men as she desperately searched for someone to call “Daddy” on her path to self-destruction, this is a treatise on celebrity and the sex symbol that blurs not only reality with fantasy but also empathy with exploitation. Either despite or because of all that, it’s a must-see.
There’s a lot of great stuff here, particularly a raw performance from Ana de Armas that strips the most examined woman in pop-culture history bare, literally and metaphorically. But as it lurches on well past the 2-hour mark, spiraling deeper into nightmare, Blonde becomes a lurid horror movie, at times overwhelmingly unpleasant.
The nagging feeling arises that in the rumored struggle between Netflix and Dominik to chisel the long-gestating project down to size, it might have benefited everyone had the director not prevailed. This is a work of such wild excesses and questionable cruelty that it leaves you wondering how many more times and in how many more creative ways are we going to keep torturing, degrading and killing this abused woman.
To get one point out of the way, the vultures who seized upon an early teaser trailer to attack the lack of authenticity in Cuban actress de Armas playing Monroe need to back off. Any quibbles about accent are beside the point, especially since her voice work is more than creditable enough. This is a freewheeling fever-dream interpretation of an iconic Hollywood creation, not a slavish facsimile.
De Armas is creating a character just as Dominik’s script has Norma Jeane create a character — in the latter case as an Actors Studio exercise, drawing a circle of light that contains an alternate self to be carried with her wherever she goes. That motif gets a bit overworked as Marilyn interrogates herself about which one of them is real, though that’s no fault of the very game de Armas.
The breathy voice and the look of faraway sensuality in eyes tinged with fear and confusion at first seem to be veering into impersonation. But de Armas disappears into the character, keeping you in the movie’s corner — at least until an awkward interior monologue delivered as Marilyn reluctantly performs oral sex on JFK (Caspar Phillipson). That scene — its quasi-pornographic detail no doubt responsible for the NC-17 rating — signals the precise moment when the film irreversibly careens off the rails.
Just in case it wasn’t sleazy enough, Dominik has Marilyn delivered and removed from the unnamed president’s hotel suite like a sack of meat by secret service agents; she’s alarmed but barely conscious following a cross-country flight zonked out on pills and champagne. Without even a hello, the Pres then motions her to get busy on his penis while he’s stuck on a call about sexual misconduct allegations. “Don’t let me throw up,” she thinks. You might feel the same.
The opening wastes no time setting up the psychological through-line of the absent father figure. On her birthday, the young Norma Jeane’s unbalanced mother (Julianne Nicholson) drags her into the bedroom where she slept in a drawer as a baby and points to a framed photo on the wall, telling the child her father is a Hollywood big shot whose identity must be kept under wraps. Her mother also makes it clear Norma Jeane was unwanted, at one point attempting to drown her in the bathtub. The girl is offloaded onto neighbors when her mother is hospitalized, eventually winding up in an orphanage.
Her teen years and early 20s are a montage of magazine shoots and pinups, including calendar nudes. Monroe’s early film experiences are conflated, making her first screen role her brief but memorable appearance in All About Eve, a part secured by submitting to rape in the office of Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (David Warshofsky).
She uses her intimate knowledge of trauma in her screen test to play the disturbed babysitter in Don’t Bother to Knock, which gets the creative team chuckling about her being a natural fit for the role. But lest we forget for a minute how women were commodified by the studio system, her exit is accompanied by the boss commenting, “Sweet Jesus, would you look at the ass on that little girl.”
Here and elsewhere, clips from films including Niagara, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot are integrated by editor Adam Robinson into a collage-like visual approach that switches somewhat randomly between B&W and color and between shifting aspect ratios.
One of Oates’ most bizarre fictional detours is a threeway relationship with Cass (Xavier Samuels) and Eddie (Evan Williams), the jaded offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, respectively. Both describe themselves as the sons of men who never wanted them, establishing an affinity with Marilyn, not that it’s played for poignancy.
Dominik instead presents their sexually charged interlude like a Herb Ritts photo shoot, landing Marilyn on tabloid covers and on an operating table for a studio-arranged abortion just as her career is taking off. That ordeal also prompts the introduction of a fetus-cam, an unfortunate device used to explore her unfulfilled longing for a child in the least subtle way possible.
Later, she’s repulsed while watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, launching into an inner monologue with her unborn child: “You killed your baby for this?” she asks. “That thing up on the screen, it’s not you.” The script’s overly simplistic Freudian personality split is only marginally less obvious than the reproachful voice that keeps piping up from the womb. Yeesh.
Dizzying images from Hollywood premieres, with a sea of flashbulbs popping and fans with grotesquely distorted mouths screaming for Marilyn’s attention, recur throughout, accompanied by an effective other-worldly score from regular Dominik collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. These sequences contribute to the disorienting effect of sudden fame that makes Marilyn fear going down the same unhinged path that put her mother in a psych ward. She’s lonely, scared and constantly violated by the Hollywood publicity machine.
Much of this is fairly standard hell-of-celebrity observation, seldom far from cliché, albeit with the seductive imagery of a gifted visual storyteller. (Dominik works here with DP Chayse Irvin, best known for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.) The film actually becomes more emotionally engaging when it lingers over straight biographical chapters.
Those include Marilyn’s stormy marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), identified as “the former athlete,” who’s uncomfortable with her fame far eclipsing his. He loses his cool and gets violent over the Seven Year Itch subway-grate scene, when delighted crowds gather to watch cameras capture her skirt blowing up in the breeze.
Better yet is Marilyn’s flight from the pressures of Hollywood in the mid 1950s, seeking refuge in New York theater, where she meets “The Playwright,” Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, the best of the supporting cast). It’s here that Dominik briefly pays attention to the vulnerable human being at the center of the hallucinatory, hypersexualized circus. Miller becomes for a time one of the few men called “Daddy” who acknowledges that she has a brain, and their time away from the spotlight in Connecticut represents a reprieve in her life. But a miscarriage pushes her over the edge again.
Feeding her instability, Marilyn receives letters at regular intervals supposedly written by her unnamed father, who keeps promising to make himself known to her soon. That psychological torment builds to a pitiless revelation when she learns the truth, and by that time you might be feeling as viciously mistreated as Marilyn.
While he skips the conspiracy theories surrounding Monroe’s death, Dominik dips into the surveillance period when her dalliances with the Kennedys put her on the national security radar. But like most everything else in Blonde, the writer-director plays with the lines separating truth from paranoia, reality from addled nightmare. The nerve-jangling sounds of phones cranked up to high volume and the constant haze of semi-consciousness push the film into sensationalized psychosexual trauma porn, steadily robbing the protagonist of all dignity.
The tragic dimension of a woman adored by the world, devoured by Hollywood and ultimately abandoned to her own despair in an ordinary little house in Brentwood resonates because we know Marilyn’s sad story. But it’s hard to ignore the queasy feeling that Dominik is getting off on the tawdry spectacle. De Armas holds nothing back in connecting with the character’s pain. She deserves better.
Production company: Plan B Entertainment
Cast: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Fisher, Evan Williams, Toby Huss, David Warshofsky, Caspar Phillipson, Dan Butler, Sara Paxton, Rebecca Wisocky
Director-screenwriter: Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Tracey Landon, Scott Robertson
Director of photography: Chayse Irvin
Production designer: Florencia Martin
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Editor: Adam Robinson
Casting: Victoria Thomas
Rated NC-17, 2 hours 46 minutes
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