How do we view Marilyn Monroe? What does it say about us that we still have a fascination with her so long after she has gone? These are the questions director Andrew Dominik has with Blonde, a complex and difficult film that is more about the creation and destruction of celebrity than it is about the woman at the narrative core.
Ana de Armas stars as Monroe/Norma Jean Mortensen. Presented as non-linear vignettes, the film follows her troubled childhood without a father and a mentally ill mother (Juliette Nicholson), Marilyn begins to pose as a model. Wanting to pursue acting, she begins to appear in films following sexual assaults by producers and directors.
Marilyn battles with sexual abuse, drug use, the film industry, the press, and the multitude of relationships, including marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Canavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). As her fame grows, her mental state and dependence on substances begin to spiral out of control.
The film is presented as a search by Marilyn for the person who loves her without wanting anything from her. Since her mother is unstable and every other man in her life wants something from her, she longs for her father (whom she never knew). That search extends to the desire for a child, but abortions and miscarriages follow her and extend her pain.
Each flashbulb is presented like a gunshot. Screaming men leer out their jaws like a horror film. Faces blur and sounds screech. Even gentle kindness is too much to endure. The resulting effects treat the film more like a nightmare it seemed to have been. It’s simple to have a broad opinion about Monroe, but the film presents the message that it’s much more complex than a single event affecting a life.
Her world is dominated by men telling her how she should be and how people will view her. It’s not about her own happiness, but only how she corresponds to everyone else. While she becomes increasingly miserable, she keeps being told how she should be happy and the rest of the world would love to be her.
What do we want from a film about Monroe? Do we want the tragic pinup who got in over her head, or do we want the sob story of a woman who was sexualized and marginalized until it destroyed her? The film never proports to be a true story. Of all the things the film is, it certainly isn’t boring.
Ana de Armas is transformative as Monroe. There is no sense of propriety or unease with the actress. She is fully committed to everything Dominik throws at her. Despite looking much like Monroe, she truly captures her essence; or at least the essence of what we expect a broken Marilyn would be like. She wears that famous megawatt smile like a suit of armor, only letting the cracks show when he can’t take it anymore. It’s the most difficult, extreme, and one of the best performances of the year
Others play an important role in Monroe’s story, but they have no agency. That being said, no one is anything less than spectacular. Brody underplays Miller very well, while Cannavale’s DiMaggio is one of the supporting highlights. Nicholson is always great, but her unhinged performance sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Dominik is in no way interested in telling a simple straightforward biopic. He has never been that type of filmmaker. He shifts from black-and-white and color at will. Surreal scenes shift into flashbacks and odd perspectives. There is a method to the perceived madness. I have little doubt this is exactly the type of story he wanted to tell.
Who was Marilyn and who was Norma Jean? Is Monroe the Frankenstein’s monster born out of horny capitalism, or was Marilyn always there and Norma Jean is just the mask to hide the pain? Dominik asks the questions without having the desire to answer them.
I have little doubt people will hate this film, but it all worked for me. Blonde presents a fictionalized version of a troubled life that holds a mirror up to our perceptions. It might not be pretty, but our reaction to the film might say more about the viewer than it does the film.
Blonde streams on Netflix on Friday, September 23rd
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