Forget Seberg, forget Mank, forget Judy — Andrew Dominik’s Venice Film Festival competition entry Blonde takes a blowtorch to the entire concept of the Hollywood biopic and arrives at something almost without precedent.
Gus Van Sant, at the height of his Béla Tarr period, achieved something remarkable and kind of similar with 2005’s Last Days, an immersive but fictional rumination on the events preceding rock star Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. But then, Blonde’s closest antecedents are all in fiction — anyone expecting an idiot’s guide to Marilyn Monroe will be surprised or even appalled to see the late star’s life presented as a horror movie in the surreal, nightmarish style of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, another film about a blonde actress struggling with the boundaries between fantasy and fiction and whose star, Naomi Watts, was attached to this movie way back in the day.
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It’s worth noting here that Blonde is not based on any of the Marilyn memoirs that sprang up in the wake of her death after a drug overdose in 1962; its source is Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel Blonde, a thinly veiled but highly fictionalized (and equally controversial) account of Monroe’s life.
Many of the criticisms of Oates’ novel will be aimed at Dominik’s film — an unfortunate pitfall of employing irony is that it often looks exactly like the thing it is meant to not be, and in Marilyn’s case this is her dehumanization in the eyes of the studios, the media and the public. There’s a case that Blonde, both on the page and on the screen, is simply inventing fresh indignities for the most positively, permanently persecuted heroine outside of a John Waters movie ever to have to suffer, but that’s a rather simplistic reaction to an art project that’s trying to interrogate the transactional nature of the Marilyn cult in the first place.
The beginning sets the tone, as the pre-teen Norma Jeane (the extraordinary Lily Fisher) celebrates her birthday with her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Gladys talks excitedly about Norma Jeane’s father, an important figure in the film industry. But it soon becomes clear that she is deluded about their relationship and her importance in this man’s life. When a brush fire sweeps L.A., Gladys drives straight into it with the terrified little girl in tow, telling the police that her lover has a safe house in the hills. At which point Gladys became abusive and erratic, later trying to drown the little girl for being a reminder of his betrayal.
When Gladys is sectioned, Norma Jeane is sent to an orphanage, all the while protesting, “But I’m not an orphan.” We then cut through a good 10 years; Norma Jeane has become pin-up star Marilyn Monroe — now played until the end by Ana de Armas — and over a montage of cheesecake images we hear the song “Every Baby Needs a Dad-Dad-Daddy” from Monroe’s third movie appearance, Ladies of the Chorus.
This jarring 2001-style jump — in some ways a nod to Kubrick, whose cool, detached influence is detectable throughout, not least in the film’s own vision of a “star child” — is a taste of things to come: Dominik’s film jumps in and out of Monroe’s private life and film career in a seemingly random pattern, using different aspect ratios and film stocks to further obliterate the standard narrative of the biopic (it’s easy to see why the film was so long in gestation). Monroe’s intense screen test for her breakout role in 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, for example, gets as much screen time as a scene in which the older Marilyn, sinking into psychosis, turns her house upside down in the search for cash to tip a delivery boy — who is, of course, gone by the time she returns to the door.
Likewise, not all of Monroe’s romances are included, two here are with Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), neither of whom emerge with any kind of glory. Indeed, it is a measure of the way times have changed since Monroe’s heyday that her acting ambitions (in particular with The Actor’s Studio) and literary influences (Dostoevsky and Chekhov) are taken at face value in Blonde, not with the smirk with which they were perceived in her lifetime. That’s because the male gaze is the villain in Blonde, from DiMaggio’s rage as Monroe films the billowing skirt scene in The Seven Year Itch, to Miller’s patronizing inability to square her brains with her beauty, to the leering faces of the men that line the streets and chant her name at her premieres. Then, more crucially, there are the letters that seem to come from her absent father, commenting on Monroe’s life and scandals in a kind of Greek chorus while she hangs onto to his every word, anxiously awaiting the day when he’ll emerge from the shadows.
When, with 50 minutes still to go, we alight in 1962, the year it all ended, it’s easy to feel apprehensive: the once-perky Norma Jeane is now the barbiturate Barbie doll of tabloid infamy, and the film becomes a full-blown, tunnel-vision phantasmagoria. Monroe is a medicated wreck at the beck and call of the worst daddy of them all: womanizing president John F. Kennedy, who’s using Monroe to recharge himself sexually after the near-apocalyptic scenario of the Bay of Pigs crisis. Her voice-over reaches a soft crescendo when she is brought to him by G-men: “Am I meat, to be delivered? Room service. Is that what this is?” An eerie scene shot in night vision is especially unsettling, but Dominik stops short of overkill, allowing us some poignant respite in Monroe’s final hours.
All the technical elements are remarkable, from cinematography to production design and score (a lush but minimal Carter Burwell-style symphony by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave). But that the film works at all is down to the extraordinary performance at the heart of it: Ana de Armas carries the film squarely on her shoulders, depicting Monroe over a period of some 16 years, and the performance — actually more of an interpretation, helped by the actress’s liminal resemblance — is all-in, ferociously emotional but complex in its nuances as it explores the child-like sex symbol’s many paradoxes. Here’s a smart, talented and really quite ambitious actress who would give it all up for a father figure to worship and a baby (the various scenes of miscarriage, not to mention a talking fetus, may well turn off at-home viewers of this Netflix production).
But for the brave and the curious, Blonde should prove fascinating, an engrossing slow-motion car wreck of a movie that puts you squarely in the driver’s seat of the oncoming vehicle. It’s worth noting that Monroe wasn’t even Hollywood’s first crash-and-burn idol, outliving the tragic Jean Harlow, among many, by 10 years, but somehow she has become the urtext when it comes to the perverse destiny of movie-star blondes. And with de Armas as his muse, Dominik has found an astonishing way to re-tell it.
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