It’s a question as complicated and difficult as Marilyn Monroe’s life
Andrew Dominick’s “Blonde” not only earns every bit of controversy it has generated but seems to have initiated it by design. In shaping a film on the life of Marilyn Monroe, Dominick isn’t remotely interested in creating nostalgia comfort food or a jukebox of greatest hits, like Baz Luhrman’s “Elvis.” Instead, we have a harrowing, highly stylized art movie, nearly three hours long, mostly in black and white and extremely hard to like.
Ana De Armas plays Monroe, who we see experiencing a tortured career, where the monster success on magazine covers and movie screens hides a lifetime of agony. As depicted here, Monroe is always a target for men, who are unceasing in the ways they exploit and abuse her.
The film opens in Los Angeles in 1933. We meet Monroe, formerly known as Norma Jean (played very well by a young Lily Fisher), raised by an unstable mother who, at one point, tries to drown her daughter. The only aspect of hope that follows Monroe her entire life is reconciling with her father, who keeps in touch through letters. Of course, this being “Blonde,” even this plot strand heads to a devastating reveal.
There’s no joy to this. It’s rough going for nearly every minute of the three-hour running time.
“Blonde,” with its overindulgent length, unceasingly downbeat tone, harrowing scenes, and lack of fun in its portrayal of Monroe’s life, was always going to be a hot topic.
The film premiered on Netflix and presents a first for the streaming giant: its rated NC-17 and has many scenes involving rape and an abortion that, according to the film, Monroe regretted having (which has resulted in many editorials declaring the film anti-abortion).
This is among the most high-profile, lavish, and sexually frank movies to premiere on Netflix. Do not let your kids watch “Blonde.”
There’s no getting around how this impressively produced, large-scale and self-conscious art movie wants to rattle its audience and leave them shaking, but the result is a work that doesn’t cover enough of its subject, yet is still too much.
Based on the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, “Blonde” is a series of scenes with crushing reveals and often painful depictions of what Monroe endured in an era where female movie stars, let alone world-wide sex symbols, were at the mercy of a male-dominated system. If Dominick is attempting to draw parallels between the “casting couch” horrors of the 20th century with the current #Metoo climate, then the film offers a valuable subtext. However, audiences may jump ship long before the revolting scene where Monroe is raped by President John F. Kennedy. Despite unfair claims that the film is “anti-choice,” it’s the angle of demonizing Kennedy on film that may be the aspect most will remember.
The prominent subplot involving Monroe’s abortion doesn’t position this as propaganda in either direction, but, like everything else here, it’s too much. The operation is graphically depicted with outrageous POV shots in the birth canal. An even bolder touch is how the film depicts President Kennedy. Few films have ever suggested, let alone outright depicted him as the womanizing monster he’s shown to be here.
Despite characters with names like The Playwright and The Athlete, the film never tells us we’re looking at. For example, Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller. There’s also no mention of “The Misfits,” Monroe’s best film, which showed the world how talented she truly was.
Of Monroe’s films, “Some Like It Hot,” “Niagara” and “The Seven Year Itch” are referenced, but neglecting to bring up “The Misfits” and the unfinished “Something’s Got to Give” was a misstep.
Dominick’s film frequently tries too hard and bludgeons its audience over the head, but De Armas’ amazing performance and the cinematography are both Oscar worthy. “Blonde” matters because most depictions of Monroe lean into her beauty and iconic qualities as one of the ultimate symbols of Hollywood glamor, but few explore the dark side of her life to the degree this one does.
Everyone from Ashley Judd to Kelli Garner have credibly played Monroe, but De Armas performance, a careful recreation as much as a real test of any actress, is incredible. Having a movie this extreme just sitting on a Netflix queue may be the biggest I-dare-you-to-watch-this the streaming site has ever initiated. There are great scenes and performances here to savor, but make no mistake: “Blonde” tells us it was no fun to be Marilyn Monroe and offers us a three-hour presentation of how a radiant smile hid so many inner bruises.