Let’s face it, the world needs another Marilyn Monroe biopic about as much as we need another prestige film about the British royal family. Few Hollywood figures have been as thoroughly and exhaustively examined on film, with more than twenty actresses either playing Marilyn Monroe or playing characters that are not named but we all know are Marilyn Monroe. And that’s not to speak of the hundreds of photographers who’ve wasted print space and hair dye trying to recreate pictures of the blonde actress.
What differentiates Blonde from My Week with Marilyn, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean & Marilyn and the dozen more films based to some degree on the actress is that this latest entry in the Monroe subgenre is focused on the Joyce Carol Oates novel, ie: long work of narrative fiction. The exception to this trend is of course the 2001 film based on the same book. What differentiates this version from the previous made-for-television adaptation is the near three-hour runtime, the NC17 rating, director Andrew Dominick whose most known previous work, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, similarly fictionalized real events, and Ana de Armas who, like Marilyn, is both the highlight and lightning rod of the film’s reception.
Browsing early reviews of Blonde reveals an equal amount of praise and criticism. While the positive reviews mention several different aspects, although uniformly single out de Armas’s performance, the criticism is almost entirely focused on one thing: this isn’t Marilyn Monroe. The film isn’t accurate. The character is too sad or too stupid. She isn’t charming enough. She cries too much. She should smile more. She isn’t fun and joyful and witty. Some reviews go as far as saying the film is an insult and shouldn’t have been made. Essentially they’re saying that the Marilyn Monroe in Blonde isn’t what we want her to be, she doesn’t do what we want her to do and therefore we do not like her. Ironically these exact views are what Norma Jane Baker, the woman who played Marilyn Monroe, dealt with her entire life. Studio heads, husbands, audiences, all demanded that she be exactly what they want, do exactly what they want, and when she didn’t fulfill this imagined ideal, as depicted in Blonde, they punished her.
Rather than offering a straight ahead biography, Dominick crafts an experiential fever dream built around themes of exploitation, trauma, abuse, and disappointment. Like Norma Jean & Marilyn before it, Blonde centers itself around the variation between Marilyn the blonde actress that throngs of male producers and photographers salivated over and Norma the girl whose mother blamed her for her father leaving and thus spent her entire life awaiting his promised return. In effect, the criticism is right, this isn’t Marilyn Monroe. Which is good since the world needs another Marilyn Monroe biopic about as much as we need another version of Bruce Wayne’s parents being shot.
Visual flourishes such as over-saturated light, blurs, and exaggerated faces pull the viewer into the mind of the focal character in a ways akin to Martin Scorsese’s cinematic tricks. Slick recreations place de Armas seamlessly into iconic Monroe moments and subtle computer effects enhance the emotion on screen without pulling attention away from that emotion. A later half sequence of relative bliss combined with a running ethereal voice over provide a Terrence Malick feeling before culminating in a climax as intense and uncomfortable as a Darren Aronofsky psychological horror. Knowing the real life end does nothing to blunt the impact of the film’s final act. Yet, for all its cinematic polish and skill, repeated shifts to black and white and between aspect ratios recall the worst of the Oliver Stone/Quentin Tarantino method of form without substance. Even with these missteps, not one of the film’s 166 minutes passes without proof that Dominick has complete command of the cinematic artform.
This same command is apparent in the physical and emotional performance of Ana de Armas. While her Cuban accent frequently peeks through her Marilyn Monroe voice, and I’d argue she’s actually prettier than Monroe was, de Armas brings an almost uncanny vulnerability to a figure most often restricted to the baby-voiced sexpot the men of her time (and apparently ours) demanded. Even in her moments of mental instability, a trait nicely maintained throughout, de Armas contains an underlying melancholy that makes us want to see her protected, and makes her abusers all the more vicious for ignoring her screams. For a film based upon one of Hollywood’s most famously beautiful actresses, de Armas (as enabled by Dominick) gets ugly in a fearless performance even the film’s most demeaning critics can’t fault.
It’s hard not to notice, however, that a film about exploitation includes are several shots where de Armas appears naked from the top up for as much as reason those shots shift to black and white. Rather than emphasize vulnerability, comfort, or impairment, all of which are better displayed in the actress’s expression, these come off as gratuitous. Beautiful as the film often is, the dreary circumstances make the film’s noted nudity as titillating as Jennifer Connelly’s in Requiem for a Dream. To paraphrase my brother’s review of that film: You know a movie is depressing when Ana de Armas goes bottomless and it isn’t hot.
More accurate criticism can be leveled to film’s handling of certain societal issues beyond those of Hollywood. The Italian ex-athlete who is not named but we all know is Joe DiMaggio is possessive and physically abusive while the Jewish playwright also not named but we all know is Arthur Miller is meek, passive aggressive, and betrays her trust. True as they may or may not be to Monroe’s experience, the portrayals of these characters fall neatly, and reductively, into established ethnic stereotypes often held by the same people who demand all blondes be happy big-chested airheads existing only to please their gaze. Further, certain scenes appear to carry a forceful anti-abortion message, including Monroe’s unborn fetus begging to be born. However, in a film about men both with power and without demanding absolute control over this woman’s body, seeing as her little more than a piece of meat to use as they wish, forced abortion is just as cruel as forced birth. Despite the film’s several agonizing scenes of abuse there are still bound to be people as obtuse to its meaning as there are those disappointed that “this is not Marilyn Monroe.”
There is one thing Blonde‘s early critics are right about. The film does exploit Marilyn’s life and image. It has to. Without this most desired subject no one would care about yet another movie about a blonde actress abused and violated by patriarchal power structures, regardless of how accurate it is. They’d argue that the world needs another movie about how men are bad about as much as it needs another movie about how hard it is to be a movie star. Without Marilyn, no one would care about Blonde. With her, or at least the idea of her, maybe audiences will watch, and maybe some will rethink criticizing this woman and others for being too sad, not smiling, not being funny, happy, or witty, or not being the perfect little fantasy they’ve built up in their minds as “Marilyn Monroe.” Hell, Monroe herself was exploited her entire life, do we really not see the parallel here?
Blonde is a punishing, bleak movie, and impossible to recommend as entertainment. It is also an evocative, haunting film, and an accomplished piece of art. By stepping beyond the constrains of a standard biopic, Dominick and de Armas have created something much more vital, much more disturbing, much more heartbreaking than any Marilyn Monroe movie is expected to be. This isn’t the Marilyn Monroe people want. It’s the Marilyn Monroe we made. After all, the world needs another blonde ingénue pretending to be Marilyn Monroe about as much as it needs another close-minded “critic” lamenting that Blonde isn’t as glamorous, charming, or sexy as they want it to be.