Blonde Review: Andrew Dominik’s Candle Burned Out Long Before the Legend of Marilyn Monroe Ever Did
All biopics have an element of fiction to them. I await the day that a biopic is true-to-life to a tee. But whether it’s Bohemian Rhapsody taking “liberties,” to put it nicely, with Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis or Rocketman being a clear-cut fairytale version of Elton John’s life, it’s inevitable that these types of films make changes in an effort to tell a compelling story. But where does that leave Andrew Dominik’s NC-17 Marilyn Monroe biographical drama — an adaptation of a book that was a fictionalized version of Norma Jeane’s life — in the realm of biopics? Let me be frank: Blonde is the film biographical drama equivalent to Elvis in that it’s stylish and occasionally lavish but throws away a brilliant performance from Ana de Armas. Blonde only somewhat beats out Stardust as the better biopic to waste an emulating leading performance due to its technical achievements.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, Blonde tells a fictional tale of Norma Jeane (Marilyn Monroe)’s life. The novel, which is over 700 pages long, is adapted by Dominik in this near-three-hour film that chronicles Monroe’s life — documenting her rise and fall in the public eye, behind closed doors and everything in between.
Opening with vignettes of the famous subway grating shoot, Blonde tells its story in a nonlinear fashion. But make no mistake, Blonde is not Citizen Kane. If anything, this is Mank. The first 20 minutes or so are spent with Marilyn — who at the time was going by Norma Jeane — and her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker (Julianna Nicholson). This portion of the film sets the precedent that Blonde is not set out to tell a feel-good story that concludes with an emphatic crescendo. This film is telling a gritty story with very few light-hearted moments. That’s not a criticism, as I don’t know a version of Marilyn Monroe’s life that is overly optimistic, but the film is grimy to the point that you’ll need a palette cleanser after.
If nothing else, Dominik’s film is his own and he commands attention through his direction. I don’t have to like all of his stylistic choices, but he utilizes just about every aspect ratio in the books — including a shot from inside a drawer in 19.5:9 — and transition shots such as the iris shot and even uses the same binoculars framing from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Dominik even brings new meaning to the expression, “making shadows dance,” and utilizes angles that can only be compared to looking into a glass ball Christmas tree ornament. Some choices work, others fall in the fetus territory (the less you know about this going into the film, the better).
Pablo Larraín’s Spencer and Jackie have already laid the groundwork for making the film that Blonde aspires to be. Take Spencer, for example. From the very start, the audience is made aware of the fact that this film is a tragedy of a real-life fairytale. Those who have followed the production of Blonde for the last few years may be aware of the source material it’s adapting, but what about the general public? I can’t imagine many are going to see the poster for Blonde and realize that this is a fan-fiction of Monroe’s life. And that’s fine and dandy if that’s what you want to do, but after watching Blonde, why does it exist? What could anyone learn from the film when a Ph.D. in Marilyn Monroe trivia is required to be able to differentiate fact and fiction? This goes to my earlier point that all biopics have some fictional element, but all my mind wondered throughout the 166-minute runtime was: Why should I care if this possibly didn’t happen? Maybe that just won’t bother those that want to see a story involving Monroe on the silver screen (or Netflix screens) and that’s who the film is attempting to hook.
Speaking of things that have very little reason to exist, that NC-17 rating puzzles me. I remember hearing about this for years and how this would be a gritty film. I’m not asking for more violence and disturbing imagery than what I saw in this film — the film already made me uncomfortable to the point that I feel grateful that I was fortunate enough to watch it from the comfort of my own home (thank you, Netflix) — but can someone explain to me what pushes this over the line of a standard R rating? It’s certainly graphic, I’m just struggling to comprehend what about this film put it over the R rating. And if it’s just hitting the guidelines for an NC-17 rating, why not chop it down to make it an R-rated film? There’s just little purpose in pushing it to that rating and like most of the film, it’s wholly unnecessary.
You can argue about the male gaze all you want, but I think it’s fair to question how much that perspective plays into the effectiveness of Blonde as a film. The rhetoric of the film is so misguided that it feels like the film is constantly showing us horrible things to tell you to feel bad for Monroe instead of letting the film do the talking. Monroe’s life was no walk in the park, that much is clear, and this film seems to underestimate how much we could understand that. It’s as if they felt the need to throw in so much sexual assault that two hands would be required to count all of the instances of it. Films like The Assistant, for example, handle similar subject matter far more gracefully. And I get it; men and everyone in Monroe’s life did horrible things to her. I’m not defending any of their actions in this film when I say that the message that “everyone is awful” is simplified to a baseline melodrama (fitting for a film that spends half of its runtime in black-and-white).
I do want to highlight the score, which was composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s like a great melody that’s in the wrong key. Their ethereal score is wasted because it never fits into the scene they’re used in. I have to imagine that Dominik was going for a unique blend of styles between his visuals and the score, it just didn’t mesh well at all. It’s like putting espresso in a cup of tea.
But the main reason you’re likely reading this review — along with anyone who willingly watches Blonde — is for Ana de Armas. Rest assured, she’s great in the film. de Armas is reaching the point of being incapable of turning in a bad performance and channels Monroe to the point that you’ll pause the film trying to figure out if that’s actually Marilyn Monroe on your screen. de Armas also elevates a lackluster script by appropriately playing up the tragic side of Monroe. From the very first meeting with a Hollywood executive to her last moments in the film, de Armas commands your attention and is one of the only highlights of this film. Despite the black-and-white filter littered throughout Blonde, de Armas pops.
I’ve had high hopes for Blonde since first hearing about it years ago. I watched it with a completely open mind, ready to either enjoy or dislike the film. However, I didn’t expect this level of disappointment. Dominik’s film is such a disappointment that really begs the question of what really separates Blonde — a biographical drama based on glorified fan fiction — from a film like Fifty Shades of Grey. Three hours of Blonde and I have no answer for you outside of de Armas’ performance.
Blonde is playing in select theaters now and will be available to stream on Netflix on September 28.