I distinctly remember the lead up to Blonde’s release. The idea was certainly intriguing, Ana de Armas was cast as Marilyn Monroe, and it would be directed by Andrew Dominik, who made The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Chopper, and Killing Them Softly, and this would be his first movie in 10 years. Not only that, but the source material it was based on seemed to indicate that it would be a very different and unconventional biopic. Then the controversy started, from the spread of awareness about the highly questionable source material which was a fictional take on Marilyn Monroe, to the announcement of it getting an NC-17 rating, to the eventual polarizing reactions of the movie itself. I admit that the very strong reactions caused me to put off my viewing of the film. However, with de Armas being nominated for her performance, I decided I might as well check it out. Unsurprisingly, I ended up being very conflicted about Blonde.
I should clarify first of all that I don’t know much about Marilyn Monroe, nor have I seen any of her movies. I think it’s fair on Blonde’s part to acknowledge that it isn’t meant to be a straight up Marilyn Monroe biopic. It is an adaptation of the book, which is itself a fictional take on the icon. While I can sort of get what Andrew Dominik was going for here, perhaps it would’ve been better to have a fictional character based on Marilyn Monroe instead. I understand that focussing it on such an icon would be more impactful for people, but there would’ve been more freedom to tell the story he wanted instead of having to tie it in with true events. As I said, there is a lot of controversy over the way that Marilyn Monroe is presented, mainly with it having her being subjected to abuse and more. Even as someone who doesn’t know much about Monroe, I get the impression that some people don’t want to be confronted with any tragedies that she went through, at least not without an optimistic or upbeat end to it. Even if some of the more extreme content was toned down, people wouldn’t take too kindly to this sort of story for her because it doesn’t reassure them that everything is okay. That being said, it’s still on the creators to handle these topics and events with a degree of care and delicacy, and sadly I have to say that some of the scenes border on exploitation for me. It’s not a full on sensory overload of bad stuff happening, but it is very drawn out. There are sex scenes and nudity but considering the controversy, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be (although the uses of them do come across as weirdly prominent). It’s just that there are a few key scenes that are somewhat problematic. The rape scenes are very mishandled, a moment in the third act particularly signalled that I was about to check out of the movie entirely. There’s a scene that particularly garnered criticism for being potentially anti-abortion, with the inclusion of a CGI fetus talking to Marilyn Monroe. Even if it was to convey a feeling of guilt, it was misguided at best. The last hour is where the movie really leaned into just making everything worse for Mariilyn Monroe, and that’s where my tolerance wavered. I had has a reveal that twists the knife further, and it turned me off the last minutes of the film entirely. So as someone who doesn’t know much about her, it isn’t exactly a flattering portrayal. If you’re a fan of her in some capacity, I imagine that this would be very difficult to watch.
That being said, I had heard lots of these criticisms before going in. So I decided to try to view this version of Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe as if she was a fictional character. I do see what Andrew Dominik is going for with Blonde, he’s going for a tragic portrait of a rising and falling star, of someone that Hollywood and everyone used, abused and spit right now. We first see Norma Jeane in her childhood and it highlighted things which would stick with her throughout the rest of her life. Then when it jumps from childhood to adulthood, it’s very startling and strange. Her rise to fame is jarringly fast, and it feels like it skipped past some critical moments and details. There are multiple threads relating to Norma which Dominik goes for, but there is a real lack of depth and it feels very shallow. The approach to these aspects are very obvious, and that continues to the dialogue too. It comes across as pretentious at points, especially when they state the obvious over and over again. One notable thread is how there is a difference between Norma Jeane the real person and Marilyn Monroe the star. It is conveyed by some very on the nose dialogue, for example, Norma talks to her mother about Marilyn Monroe rising in popularity and says “I guess there isn’t any Norma Jeane”. Blonde also emphasizes the way that men look at Marilyn, her relationships with men, and how men abuse and take advantage of her. By that it usually just has men treat her horribly and have more on the nose dialogue like “Am I meat to be delivered?” . Norma not knowing her father is a massive part of the movie, introduced at the start and carried through to the end. She is constantly searching for him and holds onto any little bit of hope that he’s still out there. Dominik also conveys this by having Monroe refer to her husbands as “Daddy” (and you’ll be hearing that word a lot in the movie). The repetitive and grim nature only makes the nearly 3 hour runtime unbearable and tedious. If it was cut down to 90 minutes, it wouldn’t be missing any key moments or details that would take away from the main points, because Dominik doesn’t give it that much depth.
There are some good performances, with standouts in the supporting cast being Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody, and they bring believability and nuance to their characters. However the star of the movie is Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe. The best thing I can say about de Armas is that she gives a very committed performance. She gives little glimpses of further humanity, and there are opportunities where she gets to shine. However, the script mostly calls for her to be fragile, to cry, and be abused. It really doesn’t help that her character isn’t fully formed. This brings me to the key problem with Blonde: it is hard to get a clear idea of the character. It paints Norma as a tragic figure, someone with traumas and who is abused by so many people. However, there is nothing else to say about her, there are only a couple times where she is shown to have any personal drive or motivations. Despite the movie being in her psyche for a few hours, I didn’t understand her beyond the surface level. There are moments which I can tell would’ve hit harder if I was right there with Marilyn, but we are distanced and disconnected from her. Other tragedies on film like Diana Spencer in Spencer (a fictional take on a real person) or Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (a fictional character) gives their subjects a clearly defined character. Blonde does not do that with Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe.
Andrew Dominik directs Blonde, and he certainly has a unique vision for the film. It’s directed incredibly well on a visual level. The cinematography is stunning with some compelling imagery, and there are some interesting camera techniques. On the editing front, it does make some unique choices, the aspect ratio and colours change often, and there are some creative transitions. Dominik is also great at making scenes feel uneasy, with much of the movie having a very nightmarish and dreamlike feeling. This is only helped further by the excellent, melancholic, and haunting score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. That’s not to say that all the technical and directing choices were good. As said before, some of the handling of the sex and rape scenes were in bad taste, whether it be what it showed or how long they went for. Other stuff like the aforementioned CGI fetus imagery is terrible, even with context.
After reading all the negative takes on Blonde, I made a strong effort to meet the movie halfway. There are some good aspects; some of Andrew Dominik’s direction is at least interesting; the cinematography is stunning, and the score is amazing. Additionally the performances are solid, or at least committed. With that said, even if you were to remove the uncomfortable portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I don’t think Dominik’s take on this story succeeded. It lacks the depth and nuance that it sorely needed, and while I tried to not focus on it too much in the review, the feeling that its subject was being exploited really doesn’t help matters. I’m not really sure that I could recommend it, but I guess if you know what you’re going into, maybe it’s worth checking out. If you’re hoping for a Marilyn Monroe biopic though, Blonde is the last place you should look.