In a lively interview with Sight & Sound to mark the release of Blonde, director Andrew Dominik describes his mission as recreating the “images” of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Blonde duly reimagines the iconic tableaus used to illustrate her all-too-short life: skirt fluttering upward around her bare legs in The Seven Year Itch, Monroe posing with husband Arthur Miller in the window of their Westchester home, and the Some Like It Hot star laying on the beach in that patterned sweater dress in July 1962, a couple of weeks before her death of a drug overdose early that August.
Knowing that this is Blonde’s ambition – rather than, say, telling Monroe’s story – is important to know if you hope to get much out of Dominik’s film. Contrary to a conventional biopic, Blonde presumably focuses on these seminal photographs in order to distill Monroe’s essence. It changes aspect ratio frequently and switches between black-and-white and color just to be more faithful to the photos, Dominik has said. That seems a noble ambition and, indeed, the first minute or so of Blonde is quite the thing: a slow-motion pan of the Seven Year Itch skirt shot during filming, with thousands gathered in Manhattan to witness it, accompanied by bulbs flashing destructively in time to a (terrific) main theme by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The Australian musicians also scored Dominik’s wonderful The Assassination of Jesse James, and have submitted another corker here.
Bold photography never leaves Blonde, which is one of the most visually inventive big-budget films in years. But writing below the standard of its acting and an odd emotional sterility means it leaves much less of an impression as time goes by. One fatal way in which Blonde continues old biopic tropes is in attempting to forge a divide between “Marilyn” and Norma Jean Baker, Monroe’s real name. Admittedly this is occasionally moving, with the likes of makeup artist Allan “Whitey” Snyder and director Billy Wilder conspiring to “conjure” Marilyn at all costs. But it’s mostly a frustrating schism that doesn’t quite come together. Lily Fisher plays childhood Norma, while de Armas is grown-up Marilyn, striving to retrace her steps and reclaim her identity while her likeness is transformed into a global sensation. Third husband Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) initially helps her do that, in return for Monroe aiding his grieving of lost love Magda by playing her on-stage. Brody is brilliant, if a little quieter and more grounded than Dominik’s film around him. When Brody’s Miller turns up midway through Blonde, it begins to feel like an actual movie. It might be generous to suggest that’s because Monroe’s life, in Miller’s company, was at its quietest, too. Either way, that’s when Blonde is at its most conventional, and likely furthest away from Joyce Carol Oates’s audacious 800-page novel.
Meanwhile de Armas is good rather than great: the Cuban-American actress does, unfortunately, stumble a little when it comes to portraying Monroe’s mousey voice and silky transatlantic accent. (That’s not to say would-be actors Jessica Chastain or Naomi Watts would have done it any better.) And in Dominik’s careful recreations of film appearances by Monroe, de Armas manages to hide herself entirely behind Monroe’s famous expressions and distinct hairstyles. As an impression of Monroe, there have been few better. But as a film performance, it is frustratingly one-note, and a little loud when the emotions of a scene speak for themselves, as they often do.
That also has a lot to do with Monroe’s somewhat maddening lack of agency. In Blonde’s conception, the actress had little talent, and required the good (or bad) graces of dodgy Hollywood characters to further her career at every step. It is no surprise that Dominik in the Sight & Sound interview referred to Monroe’s best known works as “cultural artifacts.” There are plenty who still watch and enjoy them for their charming irreverence outrageous sexual politics, regardless of the seedy backstories. Dominik doesn’t have much love for Monroe’s work, with more sympathy for the woman herself. As a portrait of a celebrity – and an artist in her own right – it’s therefore a little lacking. It’s like if David Fincher had made Mank without at all liking Citizen Kane. And if Baz Luhrmann made Elvis out of a love for the King’s music, Dominik’s purpose in directing Blonde remains frustratingly vague.
Studio heads, Hollywood bigwigs and Monroe’s second husband Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) are all skewered by Blonde, but Monroe remains torturously powerless. Its indictments of Hollywood sleaze, casting couch front and center, may have been cutting-edge when Oates first published the book in 2000. After Weinstein, such behaviour is virtually assumed. It makes Blonde a painful viewing experience, even as cinematography by young cinematographer Chayse Irvin (BlacKkKlansman, Lemonade) serves up some disarming smoke and mirrors. That may be truer to Monroe’s life than a happier or more constructive story would be. But Blonde could have shown as much love for Marilyn as it admires Norma.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release Blonde in select theaters on September 16 and on the streamer September 28.