Marilyn Monroe’s story is one of tragedy, beauty, rage, pain, and the meteoric rise and fall of one Norma Jean from poverty to a pedestal. Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about the starlet is the first NC-17 film on the Netflix streaming service, garnering a lot of attention and shining a spotlight on new star Ana de Armas as she steps into the role. The film’s premiere at the 79th Venice Film Festival brought in mixed reviews, with many praising her performance and others scorning the film as exploitative, dehumanizing, and morally bankrupt.
There’s more to discuss than just the black and white of “is it a good film.” Say what you will, but Dominik has a gifted eye and his work with cinematographer Chayse Irvin has created a stunningly beautiful film. Everything looks gorgeous, with black and white intermixing with color to give full broad emotion to the visual landscape the team is using to tell this story. It doesn’t just connect different eras of cinema but different moods and stylistic changes when moving through not only Norma Jean’s life but her relationships and interactions as well. The unfortunate thing is that the closer the story gets to its unfortunately leering climax the more Dominik seems to feel let off the leash. The focus comes in and out, the light glints in and out of the camera as though we’re merely watching to be blinded, and it all culminates in one of the lewdest and most unnecessary long shots I’ve ever seen.
That juxtaposition between what is great about terrible about Blonde is part of what will attract many to it. Most will merely be curious about an NC-17 version of Norma Jean’s story, but others will just want to see what the hell happened here. That gorgeous look applied to the film is not its only strength, with the majority of the film resting on Ana de Armas to carry it through hell and back. She does so with grace and civility, but each moment moves her through some of the most challenging and, sadly, unsalvagable material she could have been given. Dominik’s script focuses almost solely on the fact that Norma Jean never knew her father, leaving every male in her life to be “daddy” and sexually exploit and abuse her throughout the narrative (she calls every one of them “daddy,” whether she’s engaging in sexual activity or having the shit beat out of her). It’s the only idea the film has, turning the icon from a complicated and layered character into a punching bag with daddy issues.
And Armas seems game for the whole thing! Unfortunate CGI baby abortions aside, the rest of the film’s unpleasant viciousness is something she embraces wholeheartedly. Whether being forced to fellate JFK (the character imagines she is shooting a scene to avoid the trauma that this forced blowjob is causing her in one of the more arresting and disheartening images in the film) or being beaten up by Joe DiMaggio, she embraces the physicality of these scenes with physicality and care that could have been even more destructive in lesser hands.
Andrew Dominik’s imagery is very evocative of David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks. He’s brought Nick Cave and one of his bad seeds, Warren Ellis, to score the film. The two seem to have understood the assignment and merely utilized the same soundscape for Blonde. It lands in ten zone, perfectly mimicking the music of Angelo Badalamenti and matching the film’s visual language to just…perfectly imitate a stronger piece of art.
There’s just no saving this one. It was an interesting watch, one that I don’t really regret, but the film just cannot make up for its lack of structural script integrity and the absolutely brutal dehumanization of Norma Jean. The final few minutes are the icing on the cake, cruelly placing this figure on display to remind us that Dominik was not interested in Marilyn Monroe as a human being and only as a tragic figure to be exploited. He’s making a statement, but he’s tossed any meaning within aside in favor of shock and awe.
Blonde is currently streaming on Netflix.