Netflix’s faux Marilyn Monroe biopic is little more than sadistic fanfic
I’d call Andrew Dominik’s new Marilyn Monroe quasi-biopic Blonde salacious trash, but that would be an insult to trash. Trash at least has the virtue of being fun, but not a glimmer of joy is to be found in this overwrought, 3-hour snuff film. Watching it you’d never believe the legendary actress gained her icon status through powerhouse performances in bright, breezy comedies. Blonde instead presents Marilyn Monroe’s life as a sadistic fanfic where a woman is only as interesting as the men who abuse her.
It’s important to emphasize right off the bat that Blonde is not a biopic, but rather part of that new hotness of fictional stories based off of the lives of real people. This didn’t really happen, they wink, but it could have. This type of story offers filmmakers the opportunity to juice up the mundanity of real life while avoiding the clichés of the biopic structure. The screenplay, also written by Dominik, is adapted from a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a work that no doubt graced many an airport kiosk with its tabloid melodrama.
The director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is no stranger to tackling the stories of real-life individuals who have taken up an outsized place in the American imagination. Aesthetically, Blonde is very much a piece with Jesse James, but while that film’s heightened realism and dreamy poeticism lends itself well to the tale of a Western folk hero, here it comes across as insufferably maudlin as its protagonist (Ana de Armas) bounces from abuse to rape to kidnapping to addiction to suicide, perverting it all as a form of exquisite suffering.
In fact, the film seems pointedly uninterested in Monroe’s professional life when she’s not being raped by producers or exploited by executives. You’ll find no trace of the skilled comedienne and gay icon who founded her own production company to escape typecasting. Instead we get the same worn-out collection of career references as you might find on a 30-minute DVD featurette. There’s the billowing white skirt from The Seven Year Itch with no inkling of her stellar comedic work in that film. There’s the virtuoso “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a film I’ve described as happiness on celluloid, but which here is treated with such rank disdain you’d think Monroe performed it at gunpoint.
A brief scene where she pushes back against her wildly unfair salary for an upcoming project is the only evidence of the more substantive film this could have been. Instead we’re given a version of events where “Marilyn” is merely a costume that shy, sweet Norma Jeane Baker slips on in order to confront the unspeakable ugliness of her world.
There’s also the problem that Dominik seems to be completely at a loss when dealing with a female subject, and compensates by filling her story with an endless parade of men. The only other woman Monroe shares a scene with is her mentally ill mother (Julianne Nicholson), who naturally uses the opportunity to emotionally destroy her. The aura of Monroe’s absentee father saturates the entire film, as we’re nauseatingly reminded whenever she addresses both of her husbands as “daddy,” and which culminates in the cruelest narrative arc of a deeply cruel film.
All of this is made that much more unfortunate by the fact that Blonde just happens to be one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen recently. Say what you will about Dominik’s screenwriting abilities, he is a virtuoso at crafting elegant and arresting images. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin, likely best known for shooting Beyoncé’s Lemonade, uses every possible trick here: alternating aspect ratios, fisheye lenses, actor-mounted cameras, infrared night-vision, even a couple shots that appear to have been recorded on an iPhone. Scenes intermittently switch from color to crisp, high-contrast black and white, though if there is a narrative motivation for the change it fails to register.
Yet more than once this level of aesthetic freedom swings too far into self-indulgence. In some cases it’s mostly harmless, like when certain scenes look as composed and high-gloss as a Gucci ad. In others, like a cervix-eye view of not one but two abortion procedures, it’s as tasteless as it is horrifying. And yet this is what one has come to expect from Netflix’s carte-blanche production style, which has once again bought them the worst film of the year.
This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!