Film Review – Blonde
There are moments in Blonde (2022) where Ana de Armas so closely resembles Marilyn Monroe that I had trouble distinguishing between the two. She so fully inhabits the legendary star that it is uncanny. de Armas is the anchor of writer/director Andrew Dominik’s impressionistic biopic. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, the film traces Monroe’s tumultuous life and career – drawing a line between the person, Norma Jeane, and the icon whose image was plastered in magazines and on billboards. The result is a beautiful but heartbreaking portrait of a person who never got to be herself. Monroe existed as product for others to consume, which led to her untimely passing.
Taking on a lyrical, fever dream approach, Dominik (with editor Adam Robinson) traces major events through flashes in time. Although the film reaches nearly three hours, sequences blur past in quick succession. We see Monroe’s early upbringing to the meteoric rise in the spotlight. Chayse Irvin’s cinematography captures the visuals in stunning clarity. We see things play out in different forms. Black and white photography take on a documentary-like tone, where scenes of washed-out palettes recall living polaroid pictures. Re-enactments of Monroe’s classic performances burst with technicolor vibrancy, and when scenes switch to extreme slow motion, everything appears born out of a hallucination.
It’s no secret that Monroe’s life was filled with pain, both in private and publicly. An abusive mother, sleezy producers, troubled marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), a desire to have children, the substance abuse, the constant juggling between being “normal” and the “blonde bombshell” – all these factors (and many more) took its toll. Dominik leans heavily into this, which could push viewers away. In a means to deconstruct the obsession over movie stars, the production created an unrelenting profile of their central character. They push in with excruciating detail, lingering on the trauma for ungodly lengths of time. Monroe was a victim of a misogynistic society, where her every word and action was picked apart, prodded, and controlled. Her treatment was so severe that she had trouble holding on to her own identity. The society that created Monroe was also responsible for destroying her.
However, so much focus is put on the lurid, grotesque material that the intention backfires. Instead of commenting on the evils of stardom, this becomes an exercise in misery. The narrative beats down, subjugates, and torments Monroe so obscenely that it becomes exploitative. It revels in its gruesomeness, holding Monroe in a place of despair. The only means of respite was a love affair she had with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) but even that leads to sorrow. de Armas is put in several compromising positions. The fact that she was willing to go through them is a testament to her commitment to the part, but she is put through the wringer. de Armas cries and wails from beginning to end, often completely nude. She is put in sequences involving rape and other forms of cruelty. Things get so over the top that it’s almost too much to bear. I’m sure that is the point, but the message gets lost in the sea of violence and hopelessness.
It doesn’t help that Dominik’s direction is stuffed with a hyper stylized aesthetic. He has always been good at featuring characters whose reputations border on mythical – see his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) as a prime example. However, his artistic choices here are heavy handed. Despite how beautiful the camera work is, some of the fantastical elements stick out badly. Scenes of Monroe having conversations with her unborn children, the constant back and forth between reality and dreams, etc. – they pound the themes down like a sledgehammer. CGI mutates faces like garish monsters, making crowds of people look like vultures. Monroe’s desperation and paranoia has her creeping around her room in a state of hysteria, shot in night vision to resemble the climax of The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It’s a slow descent into the abyss, with the movie pointing the finger at the audience. To drive the point home, Dominik structures a scene of abuse as though it were being projected in a theater in front of paying customers. The implications cannot be any more blatant.
Most egregiously, the narrative muddies the core of Monroe’s turmoil as a case of an absent father. We learn that her father abandoned the family soon after her mother became pregnant, which resulted in years of resentment. This would haunt Monroe for the rest of her life. Scene after scene has her calling out to her father, wishing that he would walk through the door and make everything right. She addresses every male lover as “Daddy.” This is meant to highlight her subconscious filling the void left by the man, but it also complicates her relationships. Were DiMaggio and Miller placeholders to relieve Monroe of her daddy issues? Her father is represented by a picture that hung in her childhood home, but we’re not sure what it means to her. Monroe’s mother wouldn’t even tell her what her father’s name was. He was simply a ghost that had a grasp on Monroe’s psyche.
Watching this, I was reminded of another big, stylistic biopic that came out this year, Elvis (2022). While not perfect, director Baz Luhrmann captured Presley in a multi-faceted way, touching on what made him so dynamic as well as the demons that caused his demise. Blonde operates in a single gear, to give a glimpse into the price of fame. As a person, Monroe is painted in broad strokes. The humanity we do see of her – such as her wish to be taken seriously as an actor or to move out of Hollywood altogether – is glossed over and forgotten about, replaced only with grief.
Blonde is a technical marvel – a sight to behold in terms of its production and period detail. As a cinematic experience, it is punishing. Undoubtedly, this will provoke viewers into endless debate, which might be an achievement of its own. But I wonder if the discussion will be over how it was made rather the story it’s telling. The shock value overshadows the empathy. I came away thinking more about the choices of the filmmakers as opposed to the life of the central character.