Blonde director, Andrew Dominik, has been accused of not caring about the subject of his own film, Marilyn Monroe, when said film seems to have a decent amount of (warranted) sympathy for her. Dealing with the pitfalls of fame, how our childhood shapes who we are long into adulthood, and how actresses are thrown around like moneymaking meat within the Hollywood system (although Dominik insists that wasn’t part of his intention in making the film), Blonde has a lot on its mind. Like the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, which the film is based on, Blonde tells a largely fictionalized tale of Monroe’s rise to icon status, and tackles lots of interesting themes along the way. In many ways, it’s an extraordinary filmmaking accomplishment. Yet what’s on the screen demands interrogation, whether the director intended it or not, and that’s where the trouble begins.
Monroe’s (Ana de Armas) central conflict in the film is a full-blown identity crisis, which stems from her relationship with her abusive and mentally unwell mother and lack thereof with her father. She believes her mother’s claim that her father is an unnamed Hollywood star, which sets in motion her drive to “make it” in Hollywood. But of course, thanks to shallow people, vapid relationships, people who only want her for what her body will provide them (be it money or pleasure), and her own tragic, deeply-ingrained self-destructive tendencies, Monroe can never seem to find happiness.
“Look at them up there shining so brightly,” Monroe says of the stars at night. “But each of them is all alone.” If this seems on the nose and simplistic, that’s because it is. Blonde is reaching for a lot of ideas, but even though it’s not a traditional biopic, it falls into a lot of the classic trappings. Monroe, or Norma Jeane as her “true self” is referred to (it was her given name), feels alone in Hollywood; she calls two of her husbands Daddy because of her abandonment issues; she’s treated like meat in an industry whose only use for her is her sexuality. These are all valid topics, but the film jumps from one point of her life to the next, often forcing you to fill in the gaps on your own. Except you can usually assume she’s been through trauma, because that’s what the film likes to focus on.
At least, unlike Elvis from earlier this year, Blonde stays focused on its ideas. Tragedy, loneliness, and trauma permeate every inch of this movie. The fact that it’s intentional doesn’t mean it’s effective, though. Blonde is one hundred and sixty-six minutes long, and at a certain point it just gets trite. You could have cut an hour off this movie and had it be tight and incredibly effective. Instead, despite all the time we spend with Norma Jeane, we don’t get any layers or different angles to her problems. Nothing new is revealed each time we see her exploited or abused. It’s just an effort in beating you over the head with how this occurred; it’s exhaustingly redundant. This is the feeling Dominik was going for, but it simply doesn’t work.
To make matters worse, aspect ratios and color palettes are constantly changing, and according to Dominik himself, these aren’t artistic choices. They’re simply an effort to recreate the real life moments they’re replicating. So good luck looking for any consistency, or trying to decipher any meaning. Sometimes the size or color of the picture changes to swiftly that you don’t even get the chance to internalize the content of the previous scene — to be generous, I could say a single viewing might not be enough for this movie if you want to pay attention to the details — it’s just too convoluted to really internalize anything after the first viewing. But credit where it’s due: this film is a beauty to look at. While you’re struggling to make heads or tails of what you’re looking at, and why you’re looking at it, you’re at least seeing some of the most aesthetically pleasing shots of the year. It’s an assured camera, and the film is actually lit well, unlike lots of modern movies.
But at the same time, get ready for some of the most shocking imagery you’ll see in a mainstream movie. You thought the butthole shot from Cherry was ill-advised? Blonde has two shots from inside Norma Jeane’s body during abortions, which feels highly disgusting, given that it’s directed by a man, and there seems to be no evidence that Monroe had such a procedure in her life. And while there’s not as much nudity as the film’s notable NC-17 rating would suggest, it still feels more than a little uncomfortable to see Monroe in situations where showing her body is anything but empowering. And this isn’t even to mention some of the acts she’s shown to commit in nonconsensual situations. Blonde seems to make you uncomfortable because the point is for the viewer to be uncomfortable. But that’s not a good enough reason. There’s no tangible motivation behind it beyond being provocative for its own sake, which is simply irresponsible filmmaking.
Now, I don’t believe a biopic has a responsibility to depict its subject’s life as it actually happened. Artistic liberties — even big ones — are often warranted, and even better for the film’s narrative. If you want to know the facts of a person’s life, you should read an official biography, or at the very least, their Wikipedia page. It’s not a film’s responsibility to portray the cold, hard facts. And when there are highly sanitized versions of people’s lives being shown on screen to protect a person’s public image (looking at you, Bohemian Rhapsody), I nearly want to applaud Blonde for not sugarcoating a difficult life. But when you’re now making up traumatic events to add to an already traumatic life, it feels like a step too far. This isn’t The Rings of Power, which is just one of what will come to be many adaptations of a successful work of fiction — it’s someone’s actual life, and to see it treated to callously honestly feels unethical. You wonder if the same story could have been told about a fictional character, sans Monroe’s megastardom.
Watching Blonde, you’ll wonder whether Norma Jeane ever had a happy moment in her life. Dominik makes it seem like she hopped from one breakdown to the next, with nothing in between. In fact, the film’s version of her barely seems like a complex person at all. de Armas brings what she can to the role. She’s a preternaturally gifted performer, but all she’s given to work with is struggles. If Blonde proves anything, it’s that de Armas can play a damaged character — she’s even given the classic scene of screaming and hitting things in the driver’s seat of her car! Her best work within the film really comes when she’s recreating classic Monroe movie moments, instead of when she’s having her 12th collapse in as many scenes. At least the recreations show off the natural energy and star power she brings to movies in the 2020s.
Blonde has been and will continue to be accused of lots of sins regarding the life of Norma Jeane Mortensen, but its most glaring and immediate sin is that it’s just not a very good movie. Whether its messages are intended or not, beautifully impressive images, an atmospheric score, and a committed performance can’t keep it from being a shallow, repetitive, exploitative slog.