Josh Reviews Blonde
Blonde was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s a fictionalized retelling of the story of Marilyn Monroe. Ana de Armas stars as Marilyn. We follow her from her childhood with a mentally unstable mother through her meteoric Hollywood rise, her failed relationships and marriages, and ultimately her death.
I found this film very difficult to get through. I actually stopped watching after about an hour, during the horrible sequence in which we see Marilyn forced to have an abortion. I had no desire to watch any more. Several weeks later I tried again and I did manage to finish watching, mostly because I’m a completist and it’s hard for me to leave anything half-watched. But sadly I must report that I did not care for this film at all.
At almost three hours, it is unbearably long. I found the film to be a difficult slog, because all it seems to be interested in is depicting one horrible moment of misery after another, all piled atop of Norma Jeane/Marilyn. Over and over and over again the film shows us horror after horror and misery after misery.
I must confess that I don’t get the point. Is this supposed to be some sort of statement about how women and/or celebrities (and, in particular, women celebrities) are abused by our society? If so, it doesn’t work. First because the film is so unpleasant to watch that I think any message was lost, at least for me. And second because so much of what we’re watching is fictionalized. Time and again while watching the film I questioned if what I was watching is really what happened, and after reading more about the film afterwards, it seems like so much of what I’d questioned had been, in fact, made up. (That whole business early in the film in which we see Marilyn in a three-way relationship with Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr. seems to have been totally made up. Marilyn’s near-total father obsession in the film seems to be an extreme exaggeration. There also seems to be a lot of doubt about whether Marilyn was raped on the casting couch and if the details of her forced abortion are accurate. Click here for an exploration of what’s real vs. what was invented in the film.) And so, if this isn’t actually what happened to Marilyn, to me any message about her is therefore undercut.
I feel like this is a movie that wants to be Citizen Kane — an epic American story about someone who achieves all of their dreams and yet remains deeply lonely and unhappy. But this is not Citizen Kane.
If there’s a reason to watch this film, it’s to watch Ana de Armas’ performance. She is a wonderful choice to play Marilyn. She is able to capture Marilyn’s beauty. And Ms. de Armas is a terrific actress who is able to bring grace and a true depth of feeling to her performance. There are a number of wrenching emotional scenes in the film, and Ms. de Armas is very compelling.
But the film lets her down, in my opinion. There were scenes in which I could see that Ms. de Armas was giving her all, but what we were watching was so silly or over the top that I was rolling my eyes. (Marilyn’s conversation with a fetus comes to mind.) And the film is gratuitous, in my opinion, in its focus on Ms. de Armas’ body. There is a lot of nudity in the film (it wound up with an NC-17 rating), and while I am not against nudity in films, it felt exploitative here. This is a movie that’s all about men abusing and exploiting Norma Jeane/Marilyn, and I felt uncomfortably like the film itself was doing the same to Ms. de Armas. There were a lot of moments in which the camera lingers on Ms. de Armas’ nude body that felt unnecessary to me.
And there is nothing to this Marilyn other than a victim. We spend three hours watching horrible things happen to her, which she accepts with incredible passivity, again and again. I am not an expert on the real-life Marilyn Monroe, but I have to believe that there was more to the real woman than just this. (I’d have liked the film to have shown us Marilyn’s standing up to Joe DiMaggio’s violent treatment of her and getting a divorce; but the film skips over that entirely. We see DiMaggio abusing her and then cut ahead in time until after the divorce and Marilyn is alone again.)
The film plays with color and black and white, different aspect ratios, and non-sequential editing. There are stretches that feel dream-like (or perhaps I should say: nightmare-like). Usually I enjoy this sort of adventurousness in a movie, but here it all felt a little pretentious to me. “Too much of a muchness” (to quote the great TV writer Ira Steven Behr). This is a movie that contains POV shots from within Marilyn Monroe’s vagina. Do I need to say any more?
Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody are memorable in small roles as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and Julianne Nicholson (so excellent in Mare of Easttown) is riveting as Marilyn’s disturbed and abusive mother Gladys. (Also, it’s interesting to note that in the one-scene appearance of JFK, he’s played by Caspar Phillipson, who also played JFK in the 2017 film Jackie, which starred Natalie Portman! It’d have been interesting to have seen more of him in this movie.) But the enjoyment I got from those performances could not keep me connected to the film.
I really loved Mr. Dominik’s 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That story took real-life characters and events and elevated them into a moving meditation on American life and culture and our obsession with celebrity. It seems to me that Mr. Dominik had similar intentions with Blonde, but, for me at least, this one just didn’t work.
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