The Marilyn Monroe biopic is cripplingly misguided
Despite the Golden Age Hollywood that was sold to viewers in the 1940s and 1950s, an underlying darkness helped power the entertainment world at that time. This system of abuse and ruthlessness has remained in Hollywood, partly dispelled by the #MeToo movement, but sadly still deeply ingrained. A look into this dark Hollywood past is undertaken by Andrew Dominik, framing his story around Marilyn Monroe’s character.
Blonde (2022) follows the story of how Norma Jean (Ana de Armas) became the worldwide star known as Marilyn Monroe, and how she suffered at the hands of the men in her life who abused and exploited her.
Dominik has always been an ambitious director, never submitting for a conventional take on a film. His lengthy The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), was a beautiful and meditative new take on the western, and even his gritty thriller Killing Them Softly (2012) sought to buck the conventions of the genre, an admirable feat if ineffective for that film. With Blonde, Dominik appears to take on a Terrence Malick-like style of editing, that feels both documentary as well as experimental. The surreal flow of Marilyn’s life is taken in flashes and vignettes, which never quite differentiate between reality and dream. Blonde brings a mishmash of styles and techniques that seem to be throwing every idea brainstormed by creatives at the screen, instead of choosing a consistent tone. As such, Blonde is confused stylistically, we switch from black-and-white to color at random intervals, the aspect ratio flits with different dimensions, and jarring uses of CGI, voice-over, and surrealism clash incongruously with the story. It seems as if Blonde were being made as a calling card by a first-time filmmaker and they wanted to show off all their tricks at once, abandoning any consistency or service to the story as a result.
Blonde focuses on Marilyn’s suffering at the hand of various abusers throughout her life from her mentally ill mother (Julianne Nicholson), to some of her husbands (Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio), studio executives, and even a jarring scene with JFK (Caspar Phillipson). Yet, instead of showing a darkness that forged Marilyn Monroe, Dominik seems to simply relish in the abuse and violation of his lead. Scenes of rape, abuse, abortions, etc. are depicted in tactless fashion, sometimes choosing to show off stylistic choices and a disgusting male gaze instead of making the scenes seem repulsive. Dominik’s insistence with these scenes of abuse, and his lingering on certain aspects turns them into a glorification and even exploitation of Marilyn’s suffering. Some scenes of abuse are fictionalized, as according to Hollywood historians, thus making Blonde seem even more unethical in its insistence to show more and more scenes of exploitation. For a biopic on a famous and iconic woman, Marilyn isn’t given any agency and her character arc is diluted to an insulting “daddy issues” crux (the film even has her blatantly calling all the men she meets “daddy”). Dominik thus has created a film that is leery and dismissive of its subject, which is ironically what Blonde was trying to condemn.
Ana de Armas is the only saving grace for the film. The Cuban-Spanish actress has broken through into mainstream Hollywood after her winning turns in Knives Out (2019) and No Time to Die (2021). She is brave to dive into such a complex and intimidating character as Marilyn Monroe, but de Armas is bolder still to attempt both a character breakdown as well as an imitation, bringing a duality to her performance whereas other actors would stick to only one interpretation. De Armas is sadly exploited herself, yet again, with gratuitous nudity. She had to undergo a similar barrage of nudity earlier this year in Deep Water (2022), and Blonde only goes further with this aspect. In both cases this nudity is neither conducive to the story or the character. It is curious that for a film about male sexual exploitation, and an NC-17 rating, not a single man is shown naked, but Ana de Armas is forced to in every other scene. De Armas’ performance is a winning and complete one, forcing me to sometimes pause certain scenes to try and figure out whether Blonde was using stock footage or if it was de Armas herself. Sadly, her performance is marred by the whims and caprices of Dominik; hopefully casting directors will be able to untangle one from the other.
In the end, Blonde is a rather contradictory film in how it seeks to show and condemn the exploitation that Marilyn suffered at the hands of old Hollywood and men, and yet Hollywood men are exploiting her memory and character for profit and prestige. A clash of styles, incessant focus on abuse and suffering, and lack of real character exploration make Blonde a frustrating and unpleasant watch. De Armas delivers on the promise of a demanding and harsh role, but her work sadly is overshadowed by the film’s greater flaws.