It will always be a tricky act for filmmakers in attempting to adapt the life story of larger-than-life figures to the silver screen. Does one stick closely to factual events and present things as a documentary, or do you jazz it up and use their life more as a springboard for something unique? 2022 has seen a few different stabs at both, but none carry the same stigma and prestige as Blonde.
Making waves for being the first NC-17 film to be released on a streaming service, Blonde comes from acclaimed director Andrew Dominik and is an adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name. A highly fictionalized take on legendary golden age actress Marilyn Monroe, the idea of the novel was to present the uglier sides of her life as a means to showcase how Hollywood has been crooked for decades.
Sadly, the film doesn’t follow in those footsteps. Instead, it goes for a cheap exploitation angle that simultaneously is aggravating and boring as all hell at the same time.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Release Date: September 28, 2022 (Netflix)
The first ten minutes of Blonde might be too intense for most people to continue on much more. If you’re squeamish about subjects such as violence against women, rape, sexual harassment, and child endangerment, let me save you some time. Blonde’s ridiculous 166-minute runtime does not give way to some miraculous revelation by the end. You won’t be sitting through multiple rape scenes and coming out the other end with a new understanding of the struggles Marilyn Monroe faced.
With that said, the film begins in 1933 in Monroe’s youth during a fire in the Hollywood Hills. Her mother, who is dealing with a particularly harsh mental health episode, attempts to drive the young Monroe (who at this point is still being referred to by her birth name, Norma Jeane) to a house that she believes is her father’s. When the police turn her mother away, her mother takes Monroe home and attempts to drown her.
After being sent to an orphanage once her mother is declared legally unfit to raise a child, the film flashes forward a decade to the 1940s. Monroe (Ana de Armas), now having finally adopted the stage name she would make famous, is a pin-up model for various magazines and calendars. Not wishing to degrade herself any further, she tries to break into the film industry but is raped by the studio president during a rehearsal.
While I suppose that is one way to open a film, it becomes immediately clear that something isn’t quite right with Blonde. There is a litany of articles online about how grotesque, vulgar, and shocking the content of this movie is, and while I can’t say I agree with how things are depicted here, more than anything the lack of cohesive gel is what drags this experience down. From this point on in the film, scenes drift between different parts of Monroe’s life in a fashion that could best be described as slipping in and out of consciousness.
Blonde is very much a linear film in that the next scene doesn’t take place before the last and we aren’t given much in the way of flashbacks. There might be a couple of moments where Monroe remembers a past event, but things unfold in a straightforward fashion. It’s more that none of the scenes have any real connective tissue. Instead of being written in a way that informs the next scene or gives you a new perspective on some shocking event from before, Blonde is almost deliberately obtuse as if it wants you to forget about how incoherent it is.
Case in point, after the attempted child homicide and the rape scene, we flash forward another decade to a time when Monroe is finally getting some roles in Hollywood. She still isn’t quite the sensation she would be remembered as, but she is finally making tracks in tinsel town. After landing the part in Don’t Bother to Knock, Monroe meets with Charles Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) and the trio form a polyamorous relationship. Exploring their bodies together, the now infamous threesome scene happens and it sort of cements what Blonde is all about: utilizing Monroe’s image to push an otherwise unremarkable and tawdry film.
As I’ve grown over the years and learned more about world cinema and its different styles, I’ve come to accept specific themes and subject matter that I would never have dreamed of engaging with years ago. I was once a prude, so I can understand why some people are upset with Blonde. If you’re repressed, watching a goddess of the screen get railed by two people in a hilariously cheesy and weirdly edited montage is probably infuriating. To me, it just feels like titillation for the sake of it. It’s not even interesting titillation.
Describing more of the plot from this point on will bloat this review out to 4,000 words and I’m not going to repeat the same sin Blonde does by wasting your time. I’ll mention a couple of other moments before I dig into the only good aspects this movie has. Around roughly the hour and 20-minute mark, Monroe is giving an interview in her home and tries to explain her understanding of filmmaking. She says, “Without a script, what’s the point? It just happens… like the weather.” I wrote this down, specifically, because that’s how Blonde made me feel. I’m certain there was an actual script for this movie, but most moments just happen with no build-up or expectation.
For a movie proclaimed to be very feminist in its depiction of Monroe, the movie is also shockingly anti-abortion. I’m not even referring to the moment where Monroe has an abortion forced on her against her will, which is at least something I can understand. No, later on during her marriage to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), Monroe is in the garden tending to flowers and she starts talking to the soul of her fetus. Since this movie had to spend its budget somewhere, we see a representation of said fetus as this CGI monstrosity -it also appeared beforehand-.
As Monroe contemplates her life and actually smiles for once in a long time, the baby talks back to her and asks, “You won’t hurt me this time, will you?” I’m not so naïve as to think Andrew Dominik put that in her to show Monroe was literally talking to a fetus, but the message couldn’t be clearer here. This isn’t Monroe feeling guilty about losing a child or having her agency stripped from her. This is the film stating its thesis about how it sees Monroe as a person.
I didn’t read any reviews for Blonde before watching the movie myself, but I did happen to check out interviews from the cast and crew. While Ana de Armas maybe became a bit too involved in the process, she at least gives a great performance that is far better than this film deserves. Dominik, on the other hand, made it pretty clear that he views the real Monroe as a whore who manipulated men to achieve her goals. Try as I might, I couldn’t get that thought out of my head during the film.
I’d never suggest that we rewrite history in our movies to make the past seem rosier than it was. It’s necessary to showcase the ugliness of our forefathers so that we can learn to not repeat those same mistakes. At the same time, you absolutely can sprint over the line of what’s acceptable when trying to make your point and Blonde does that at every turn. There’s barely a moment where Monroe isn’t referred to as a whore or slut and the characterization of her boils down to “pretty girl with daddy issues.”
Even with it being true that Monroe referred to her first two husbands as “daddy,” the woman was much more than a sniveling little girl who had to rely on men for support. To give Blonde credit, there is a moment earlier in the film when getting a callback for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that showcases this power. The casting director calls Monroe and explains how she’ll be receiving something like 20 times less than the male star and she responds, “Fuck Marilyn. She’s not here now,” and promptly hangs up. It’s great, but it’s really the only time in this film where Monroe is given any agency of her own.
That is the main problem with this movie. Instead of developing Monroe beyond what people may know of her or even taking the prestige and star power she had to tell an interesting story about abuse in the entertainment industry, Blonde simply feels like congealed pasta. It’s identifiable as a film, but it’s not particularly appetizing or solid.
This is hammered home even more by the shifting aspect ratios and color palettes. The film starts in a 4:3 window with an almost sepia tone filter and I thought it would be going for different eras being represented by specific tones. Instead, the movie just shifts around whenever it feels like it. I guess the big sex scene needs a 2:35:1 presentation and technicolor while the rape scene is okay with 4:3 and grayscale. There’s no rhyme or reason to the choices, with other grotesque moments in color while other more positive moments can be in black and white.
I don’t believe I gave de Armas enough credit, but I’ll bring that up again. While she can’t quite nail the American accent that Monroe had, she absolutely looks the part and gives a rather impassioned performance. I’m not sure if I would call it the best of her career, but Hollywood should start treating her better. The rest of the cast is also fine, with Adrien Brody shining in his short screen time.
The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is the absolute highlight of Blonde, though. Echoing with themes of Vangelis’ work for Blade Runner, it paints a hauntingly beautiful soundscape that can elevate otherwise boring moments to transcendency. I cannot stress enough that this score deserves a much better film, because it really is quite angelic. At times, I was moved to tears simply by de Armas’ performance and the score kicking in at once.
At the end of the film, I felt empty and bored. The movie closes with a rape scene from former president John F. Kennedy and Monroe ODing on drugs and I was relieved to be done. I didn’t pick this film for review because I wanted to trash it, but because I was interested in the mystique it was building pre-release. People on social media have been screaming about it as this awful abomination while the film received a 14-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. It had to be interesting at the very least, right?
Sadly, I can’t even muster up enough anger to feel outraged. I’m merely disappointed that I spent three hours of my life watching some director’s vanity project about how much he hates starlets in Hollywood. If not for that NC-17 rating and the stigma it carries, I’m almost certain Blonde would come and go without so much as a whisper of its existence.
Though I may not be enraged by its existence, I do think Blonde should be the last time Hollywood exploits the image of important historical figures for financial gain. Maybe there are some untold stories there, but we can’t keep desecrating the memory of terminally exploited actresses by exploiting them even more. Please, let Marilyn Monroe rest in peace.