'Blonde': A Challenging, Complicated Re-Telling of Marilyn Monroe's Life
To call Blonde a complicated film would be a massive understatement. For starters, the film tells a fictionalized account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, focusing specifically on the hardships she may or may not have faced during her lifetime. From the abuse she suffered as a child, to her tumultuous romantic relationships, to her difficulty to have children, the film does not shy away from the less than glamorous parts of her life. However, as stated above, the film is not directly based off her actual life, and is instead based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates's novel pulls from alleged stories of what went on in her life, and paints a fictional portrait of Monroe. Both the novel and the film seek to pull back the layers of one of the most iconic Hollywood stars of all time, and try to examine her as a human as opposed to an icon. It's an interesting concept, for sure, to try and find the person underneath all the glamor and mystique that surrounds Marilyn Monroe and her legacy, it doesn't quite manage to accomplish this in its execution. The film attempts to criticize how Monroe was exploited and mistreated by the people around her, and wants the audience to see her as a real person. However, the film ends up reducing her to little more than her trauma, and does exactly what it is criticizing in how it depicts Monroe as a person.
The film blurs the line between fact and fiction, as it references specific moments in Marilyn Monroe's career (mainly through recreations of her most notable film roles) as well as specific figures (Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, JFK, etc.) that played a sizable role in her life. While the events may or may not have actually happened, the film unfolds in a way that allows it to feel visceral, and follows a trajectory that doesn't feel too far removed from what little we actually know about Monroe's life. The film certainly does not shy away from how bad things may have actually been for her, and at the very least, it does leave a large impact. It may be a more negative impact than writer/director Andrew Dominik is going for, but that will likely vary from person to person. For me, I'm torn, as it is clear that the film is criticizing the misogyny, abuse, and exploitation that Monroe may or may not have experienced, yet the way it frames some of these moments feel just as damaging. It could be argued that this is the whole point, and that it is wanting to fully confront the audience about the horrific things Monroe experiences in the film. If this is true, I will say that it does work in certain moments, and allows you to sympathize with Monroe. But there are some moments where it just feels unnecessarily cruel, and where it does the very thing it is trying to condemn.
A lot of my issues with the film boil down to what Dominik's intentions are, versus how he executes them. It's clear that Dominik was fascinated by Joyce Carol Oates's novel, and wanted to deconstruct Marilyn Monroe as an icon. It makes sense given that a lot of Dominik's work is devoted to deconstructing myths. With The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he takes on another American icon, Jesse James, and demystifies him. In Killing Them Softly, he takes a very in-your-face approach to deconstructing capitalism and the myth of the American Dream. With Blonde, he takes aim at Marilyn Monroe, and tries to show the humanity underneath the glamorous image most people have of her. However, the needle that he is trying to thread between reality and legend is a difficult one, and he doesn't seem too well-equipped to handle what the film is asking of him. By and large, Dominik is a very unsubtle filmmaker, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but with a film like Blonde, you definitely need someone who can bring more nuance to the table. Dominik certainly tries to add more nuance throughout the film, but so much of it ends up feeling rather broad, and some of the larger themes end up feeling generic and artificial.
The film also struggles with how it views Marilyn Monroe, as certain moments feel so sympathetic towards her, and others seem to victimize her. It deeply wants to see her as a human, but I feel that this gets lost under all of the more scandalous and horrific things she goes through over the course of the film. While the bulk of these things are meant to humanize her, I'd argue that they do quite the opposite, and that it is rather reductive towards her. I know that this is a fictionalized version of Monroe, but even through that lens, the film gives her such little agency and depth that she feels more two-dimensional for large stretches of the film. I'm not saying that the film needs to be overly reverent to her, or that it needs to sweep the dark parts of her life under the rug, but I feel it could have struck a more defined balance between the two. Instead, the film's depiction of Monroe feels inconsistent, and lacks quite a bit of nuance, as well.
However, Ana de Armas certainly does her best to help the film's version of Marilyn Monroe feel more fully formed, and gives one of her best performances to date here. She sinks fully into the character, and has some legitimately great scenes throughout the film. de Armas manages to capture the essence of Monroe, and the empathy she has for her as both a character and as a person is so apparent, and helps some of the more intense moments hit even harder. She is able to elevate how the character is written to give Monroe a little more dimension, which helps the film out quite a bit. I wouldn't say it's a perfect performance, per se, but it is quite arresting, and bolsters the film in a major way.
As for the rest of the cast, most everyone is doing rather serviceable work. Most of the characters in the film show up for one scene, and don't leave too much of a mark on the film. Of course, there are some exceptions. Perhaps the biggest standout of the supporting cast is Adrien Brody, who plays The Playwright, a clear stand-in for Arthur Miller, one of Monroe's ex-husbands. It's a bit of an internal performance, but he is able to depict the character's neuroses in a more naturalistic way, and he has great chemistry with de Armas. I'd argue that the section of the film that focuses on The Playwright and Marilyn is the strongest of the film, as it is one of the few times where the emotional beats hit the way they were intended. Brody's character might be a small part of the grand scope of the film, but he makes the most of his scenes, and gives an excellent performance.
Circling back to Andrew Dominik, I certainly feel that in terms of achieving the nuance and complexities of the film, he doesn't succeed. However, he does succeed in pulling off some of the film's stylistic flourishes. Sure, some of the directorial choices make the film feel like a watered-down David Lynch movie, but they still work for the most part. I will say that the choice to change from color to black-and-white, as well as changing aspect ratios, feel a bit gratuitous, and while this may work in specific moments, it is mostly just distracting. That said, Chayse Irvin's cinematography is quite gorgeous, and the way he uses movement and composition is a saving grace of the film. The film has this clear, crisp look to it that is so engrossing, and makes it even harder to look away from the film's more upsetting moments. It's a pretty impressive achievement, and easily one of the best aspects of the whole film.
I also loved the almost other-worldly score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Granted, I am a bit biased, as I'm a huge fan of their music in general, but their score is used so perfectly here. It does feel reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's work at times, but it also feels so in line with Cave and Ellis's distinct sound. I was reminded several times of the album Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as the score features similar instrumentations. The film even uses an instrumental version of a song from that album called Bright Horses, which is used excellently to underscore a scene of Marilyn and The Playwright on a beach. For the most part, the score has a foreboding vibe to it, which matches the tense, unsettling atmosphere that permeates most of the film. On the whole, the score is used so well throughout the film, and might be one of my favorite scores of the year.
While some of the creative choices work quite amazingly, there are some that are quite awful. A lot of this comes down to the writing, but in some cases, it's all about the execution. There are a couple of scenes that manage to be horrible all around, and took me out of the film almost completely. One involves a scene with Marilyn Monroe and JFK, which is so exploitative and demeaning. It does play into a larger point about Monroe's fame and overexposure in the media, but it still feels rather unnecessary. Another example is a scene in which Monroe is talking to her unborn child, which features a CGI fetus. The scene is just so heavy-handed, and feels so out of place with the rest of the film. In addition, some of the less than subtle directorial choices end up feeling a bit excessive. While I can understand Dominik wanting to assault the viewer with spectacle, it just doesn't always add up, and more often than not, comes across as annoying.
Blonde is a film where the things it does well, it does really well. But things it does wrong are borderline awful. On a technical level, it is highly impressive, and features some of the best cinematography I've seen this year, as well as one of the best film scores of the year. Where it manages to crumble is in Andrew Dominik's direction, which is just not suited to making the points it tries to make on Marilyn Monroe's life and career. I can't fault him too much, as the film is highly ambitious, and what he is trying to pull off would be highly difficult for any filmmaker. While he is able to make certain aspects of the film work, it ends up being far more hit or miss than he intended. It just feels misguided, and while I can appreciate that the film is trying to humanize Marilyn Monroe, I personally don't think it's very successful. I am very curious to see how this film ages, as I can see it either getting worse with age, or finding itself being re-evaluated in about ten years time. At this point in time, however, I find myself very mixed on Blonde. It has some pretty major flaws, but I can't deny that some aspects of it are quite incredible. It is a deeply complicated film that is challenging and often difficult to watch, but it's not without its merits, either. It isn't a particularly great portrait of Marilyn Monroe, but it does leave quite the impression, for better and for worse.