Just like the recently-released Netflix series Dahmer, Blonde falls into the very traps it seeks to avoid. While wanting to look at the life of Marilyn Monroe and the reason for her enduring legend, Blonde lingers on the luscious curves, the tear-filled eyes, the wet pout, and the many men who exploited her, but not telling us anything about the woman inside.
Monroe in Blonde is the eternal victim. While there are passing mentions of Monroe having read Dostoyevsky and Chekov, and arguing for better pay in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there is no mention of her standing up to the studio and starting her own production company.
While Blonde has its faults and its uncomfortable manipulations of truth, it is a gorgeous-looking film. Alternating between different aspect ratios, shot in black-and-white and colour, Blonde is, as director Andrew Dominik says, an “avalanche of images and events”. It dips into the imagined psyche of a woman who represented different things to people of all races, gender and sexual orientation.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 738-page doorstopper, Blonde tells the story of Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas), who is taken from her mentally-unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) and put into foster care. As she achieves success as a pin-up model, the Marilyn Monroe persona is born.
Norma Jeane looks at herself as separate from Monroe, as she says, “When I come out of my dressing room, I’m Norma Jeane. I’m still her when the camera is rolling; Marilyn Monroe only exists on the screen.”
The movie trips the light fantastically through Monroe’s marriages to retired baseball player Joe DiMaggio — who is referred to as Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale) — and The Playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Her debasing sexual encounter with Kennedy, referred to as The President (Caspar Phillipson), and polyamorous relationships with Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) and Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel), the son of Charlie Chaplin, are also dwelt upon.
Despite the storm on casting a Cuban actress as an American icon, Armas is scintillating as Monroe. Apart from the blonde wig, blue contact lenses and dental prosthetics, Armas has brought Monroe eerily to life; you do a double take when she sings I Wanna be Loved by You, and have to tell yourself that it is Armas and not Monroe.
The NC-17 rating (the first in over a decade) despite Dominik feeling they had “coloured inside the lines,” for its graphic rape scene and the harrowing abortion from Monroe’s vagina’s POV — apart from nudity and child harm — also feeds the sexpot persona of Monroe.
Instead of a look at our relation to celebrity and the mythmaking involved in the creation of pop-cultural icons, Blonde finally is yet another look at the legend of Monroe, the woman who stood above the subway grate with a passing train blowing up her white dress. While the skin under the billowing skirts is there for all to gawp at, Blonde does not give us a sense of the skull beneath that skin.
Blonde is currently streaming on Netflix