“Blonde” was written & directed by pseudo-intellectual “filmmaker” Andrew Dominik and stars Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe (AKA Norma Jeane, a name said more times than the word “the” in the script). Netflix describes the film as a “fictionalized chronicle of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe.” Take the “fictionalized” part of that extremely seriously.
About a million reviews/rants for “Blonde” are surrounding the Internet currently due to it being an unbelievably inaccurate depiction of Monroe’s actual life. It’s been labeled “exploitative,” “cruel,” and “trauma porn” by many critics, and average moviegoers don’t seem to like it much either. But is it actually as abysmal as its reputation? Yeah, probably. It’s self-indulgent, unforgivably long, and criminally marketed.
“Blonde” is a tricky movie to discuss. I could write a scathing hit piece detailing how disrespectful it is (because it legitimately does spit on Marilyn Monroe’s legacy) or I could write a regular review judging the film based on its own merits and flaws. I’m going to do the latter here.
Firstly, it must be emphasized that Ana de Armas gives a mindblowing, powerful, and enthralling performance as Monroe — sorry, Norma Jeane. Obviously she looks a lot like her real-life counterpart even without any of the hair, makeup, or costumes, but that’s not what makes this performance so special. She isn’t merely imitating Marilyn Monroe — sorry, Norma Jeane — to draw in the audience. She does the hard work to make the audience feel for her, to feel like they’re a part of her, to feel like they’re enduring the pain alongside her. It took my breath away seeing how fearless and raw her performance was. She undoubtedly gave this film her all.
I also loved most of the other performances, namely Adrien Brody as Monroe’s — sorry, Norma Jeane’s — third husband Arthur Miller. It’s a very quiet, subdued performance that’s incredibly endearing, which is nice to have in such an intensely melancholy film. I will say, however, that I thought Julianne Nicholson stuck out like a wild Jared Leto. She gives such a checked out, lazy, and by-the-numbers performance as Monroe’s — sorry, Norma Jeane’s — abusive mother. The audience is supposed to be horrified of her, but since she’s so lifeless, it’s challenging to feel that instant sense of fear we’re supposed to have at the beginning of the movie. This is the most significant supporting role, bar none, as it establishes the trauma that haunts Marilyn — sorry, Norma Jeane — throughout the rest of the film. The movie needed a Frances McDormand type for this, and Nicholson just wasn’t it.
Unfortunately, besides Ana de Armas’ terrific performance, my views on all of the other aspects of the film range from mixed to furious. Starting off with the mixed, the film’s cinematography is both a blessing and a curse. “Blonde” is absolutely gorgeous thanks to director of photography Chayse Irvin. On the other hand, the way Dominik uses Irvin’s hard work is infuriating. It’s honestly like a goth teen took the Mona Lisa and spray-painted graffiti all over it.
Dominik decided to alternate between color and black & white, as well as 4:3 and 16:9, every six minutes, causing the viewer to be drawn out of the experience by the distracting visuals. In an interview for Sight & Sound Magazine, Dominik explained that he determined the color and aspect ratio based on photographs of Marilyn — sorry, Norma Jeane –, and that “[t]here’s no logic to it, other than to try to know her life, visually.”
This doesn’t make any sense. Most scenes don’t take place at the time/location where a photo was taken, so how did he decide when to swap aspect ratios or switch between color and black & white? It can’t be based on tone because plenty of the worst moments in her life are in color and plenty are in black & white. It also can’t be based on time, because the whole movie is linear. Here’s what I believe really happened. Each day a crew member would ask Dominik, “Okay, how should we shoot this scene?,” to which the Omnipotent One would reply, “I dunno, just like, whatever man. Photos. Go find some photos of Monroe somewhere. Actually, hold on a minute. Fetch me my oat milk latte first, will you?”
Clearly, I’m not a fan of Andrew Dominik. He’s just trying way too hard. He thinks that he’s making some profound statement. That he’s revolutionizing the way movies are shot and edited. That he’s the next Kurosawa or Scorsese or Spielberg. But in actuality, he has the style of a film student flunking his classes. Dominik sprays all of his massive ego onto the screen, blocking our view of the characters and narrative. Marilyn Monroe — sorry, Norma Jeane — isn’t the focus of his movie. Andrew Dominik is. Unfortunately for him, no one cares about Andrew Dominik, and they’re certainly not going to like him after “Blonde.”
Remember, Dominik also wrote “Blonde.” So is he a better writer than director? No, absolutely not. First of all, some of the dialogue is laughably incompetent. From the out-of-place soliloquies to the unintentionally funny lines to the creepy and perverted remarks by certain characters, conversations in “Blonde” can be painful to listen to.
The structure is also abysmal. The entire point of the movie is that Norma Jeane (WOAH, I got the name right this time!) is harassed and abused by the Hollywood spotlight. This is certainly an important and meaningful message, but the film isn’t able to explore it with any real depth. The majority of the film takes place over about ten years, all of which are spent with Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane already being famous. Therefore, we never actually see a transformation over a substantial period of time, nor do we get to see much of the fake Marilyn Monroe persona Norma Jeane puts on for crowds. The film is so strictly in the perspective of the protagonist that the audience can feel the weight of her emotions but cannot feel the overbearing cause of them. The film plays out as scene after scene of abuse, pain, and misery, and while these moments are effective and heartbreaking at first, when pain and misery are the only elements of a film, the audience becomes numb to it after a while. “Blonde” efficiently forces us into the headspace of its lead but doesn’t give us the necessary chance to breathe so that we can feel just as much, if not more, pain all over again.
I’m devastated by how “Blonde” turned out. This was one of my most anticipated films of the year. The on-set photos and trailers looked terrific, as did Ana de Armas in the role. I was excited to see this darker, deeper take on Marilyn Monroe’s life. I rooted for “Blonde” and really, really wanted to adore it. But it’s impossible to adore a nearly three hour movie made by and exclusively for a director that’s obnoxiously pretentious.
Ultimately, what makes “Blonde” so strangely pathetic is that its writer/director simultaneously tries too hard and not hard enough. The visuals are over-stylized and in your face, yet the dialogue and narrative are shockingly underwritten. While “Blonde” might not be the worst movie of the year, it deserves the hate being thrown at it. I just hope Ana de Armas gets an Oscar out of all this.