By Alex McPherson
A grueling, disorienting, and horrific reimagining of the life of Norma Jeane Baker, who became Marilyn Monroe, director Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” ultimately proves to be a case of excessive, at times exploitative, style over substance.
Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, “Blonde” isn’t a traditional biopic in any sense, instead plunging viewers into a hallucinatory, David Lynchian hellhole that never lets up for its whopping 2-hour-and-46-minute runtime. Viewers begin with the child Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher, effective in her few scenes), living in Los Angeles with her single, alcoholic, mentally unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), while a fire rages outside in the Hollywood Hills.
Norma Jeane’s absentee father is apparently a bigshot in TinselTown, but she’s never met him, prompting trauma and insecurity that persistently haunt her throughout her life. Gladys, losing her mind and desperate to find him, then nearly drowns Norma Jeane in a bathtub, only to release her at the last second and let her escape to the next-door neighbors.
Flash forward a bit, and Norma Jeane is sent to an orphanage against her will. Flash forward again, and the “Marilyn Monroe” persona has been born, with Ana de Armas portraying our heroine with admirable, if misguided, fervor. Scarred by her horrible childhood, manipulated by devilish studio executives to advance her career, entering one corrosive relationship after another, being frequently underestimated, experiencing drug addiction, and remaining unable to separate her personal life from her public, hyper-sexualized persona, Norma Jeane’s life is tough, to say the least, and draining to watch unfold.
Indeed, despite Dominik’s stylistic bravado and de Armas’ transformational performance, “Blonde” is difficult to recommend. This is an NC-17 rated film, and Dominik goes all-out depicting Norma Jeane’s abuse by practically everyone surrounding her. It’s too bad that far less attention is given to the character herself, reducing her to a victim sans agency, and robbing her of three-dimensionality that would have lent poignancy to the film’s onslaught of terrors.
At least de Armas gives her all. A Cuban actor who’s left positive impressions in such films as “Knives Out” and “No Time to Die,” her impression of Norma Jeane’s voice and appearance is uncanny, particularly in Dominik’s painstaking recreations of iconic moments from Norma Jeane’s career.
De Armas’ commitment to the role overshadows the rest of the cast — though Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody stand out as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, respectively. Her portrayal is especially impactful when we witness the moment she quietly shifts from the crumbling Norma Jeane into the confident, alluring Marilyn — a character that she can disappear into, if never remove herself from.
But although de Armas has the acting chops to explore Norma Jeane’s multifaceted headspace — and the real-life woman’s successes and triumphs amidst the gloom — “Blonde” doesn’t give her much room to delve into her complexities. A romance with Eddy G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) and Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) marks one of the only times she actually feels companionship in the entire film, if only briefly and later upended — including a sex scene that seemingly warps and stretches the screen to pretentious effect.
Rather, more often than not, de Armas is reduced to hysterical outbursts and a performance defined by repetition, enduring violence against her (continually) naked body and her mind. Viewers aren’t granted any noteworthy insights into the dark side of Hollywood, being force-fed familiar points of misogyny, sexism, and mental illness. Even with fleeting moments here and there of Norma Jeane getting a chance to voice her opinions and demonstrate her intelligence, “Blonde” reduces her to a one-note, broken husk of a character, putting Dominik’s in-your-face filmmaking at the forefront.
Speaking of, “Blonde” certainly doesn’t lack artistic creativity, for better and worse. Jumping between different aspect ratios and switching between black-and-white and color photography (seemingly with little reason), Chayse Irvin’s immersive cinematography is complemented by editing that’s alternately, woozy, ethereal, brutally uncompromising, and invasive.
Through this, “Blonde” effectively creates feelings of discomfort, irritability, and shocked hypnotism. The score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, captures a melancholy that hints at the emotion lurking somewhere at the story’s core, begging to be released.
Still, for all the transfixion gleaned from the film’s flourishes, “Blonde” is chock full of scenes that dehumanize, violate, and demean Norma Jeane, bashing viewers over the head with the awful ways she’s treated, as well as the ever-present public eye, full of men whose mouths gape open as if to swallow her whole. From abortions viewed from the perspective of Norma Jeane’s vagina, to an absolutely vile fellatio scene late in the film that juxtaposes a spaceship crashing into the White House with reaching an orgasm, it all just begs the question… Why was this necessary?
And that’s the final takeaway from “Blonde.” Despite individual elements that shine, the overall piece is more confusing and maddening than satisfying, leaving me frustrated thinking of the powerful film that could have been.
“Blonde” is a 2022 drama-fantasy written and directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Garret Dillahunt, Julianne Nicholson, and Lily Fisher. It is rated NC-17 for some sexual content and the runtime is 2 hours, 46 minutes. It streams on Netflix beginning Sept. 28, and is in selected theaters Sept. 23 (but not in St. Louis). Alex’s Grade: C-
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd and a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.