Blonde is an extremely dark biopic about Marilyn Monroe that is difficult to watch. It bobbles between gritty realism and trippy surrealism while various horrible things happen to the lead character approximately every 15 minutes for almost three hours. Some if it is striking, some of it excessive overkill. Even the film constantly shifting aspect ratios and black and white to colour palate seems like it’s reaching for artistic merit but doesn’t make a lick of sense. Considering talking fetuses are an emotional lynchpin of Blonde, something has gone off the rails. Yet the main performance is exceptional making this a well-made yet nasty slog.
Norma Jean aka Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) has had a difficult life considering at a young age her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) tried to murder her. Grown up Norma takes on the moniker of Marilyn Monroe as a pin-up girl and actress but she just wants to be loved. This dream gets complicated as she enters into a romantic relationship with two guys, Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy (Evan Williams). Her life is a streak of pregnancies, unwanted abortions, hallucinations, drugs and her being constantly victimized by men in power. When she marries a famous Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale) things go wrong, when she marries a famous writer (Adrien Brody) things are temporarily happy then things go wrong, and things are especially bleak when she’s flown around the country to attend to the President (Caspar Phillipson). Over the years she receives correspondence from her long lost father, promising light at the end of the tunnel. But as everything that has happened in Marilyn’s life, happiness is out of reach.
Armas is fantastic even though Marilyn spends most of her screen time either delusional or being victimized or earnestly longing for happiness or sobbing or screaming or just about every other thing. She certainly runs an emotional gamut and Armas’ vocal impersonation of Monroe is freaky accurate. Monroe genuinely seems like an innocent but everyone keeps using her for their own benefit. The only time she finds brief moments of happiness is when she’s with the two guys, Cass and Eddy. Samuel and Williams basically play the duo as dopey pleasure seeking guys who are hard to sympathize with. When she becomes pregnant by one of them, she believes it’ll make her happier. She eventually decides to terminate the pregnancy, then changes her mind, but is forced to go through with it anyway. This is feels exploitive with an up-close view of the abortion as she’s screaming to get free. This leads into a trippy visual of her walking into a burning house which is a powerful image but symptomatic of the movie going for shock value, screwing around Monroe and the audience.
The film prioritizes visual trickery, flipping back and forth between colour and black and white for no discernible reason at all. Maybe the black and white stuff is supposed to be when things are sad but there are plenty of scenes where she’s happy in black and white. Most of the film is in a boxy aspect ratio but then there are random widescreen shots. There’s one moment when Monroe is shooting her iconic white dress where the frame goes wide which conveys a historic filmmaking moment. But flickering between aspect ratios and colour feels like the director was bored or didn’t pay attention to what lens was on the camera. There’s also a repeated visual representation of a fetus which is Monroe dreaming of her child to be and it is supposed to be profound but it comes off dopey, especially when it starts talking to her. One aspect of the filmmaking that is consistently great is the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that accentuates the emotion. A bit when Monroe is happily running through her house the music is positively soaring, and later when things go wrong the music is discordant and disturbing.
The victimization of the main character starts early with a harrowing opening sequence about her childhood with Nicholson screaming as the crazed mother. Monroe being abused continues throughout the film, her marriage to the Ex Athlete starts off well and good then ends up with her being smacked around as Cannavale is great at playing the extremes. Her encounter with the President is just really gross and it is borderline absurd how much of a sleazebag Phillipson acts as the President. The only time things seem to be going well is when she’s married to the writer and Brody portrays one of the few genuinely caring people. Yet the movie has constantly just thrown horrible things at the main character so when something bad happens it feels inevitable. No real names are used for the historical figures but it’s easy to figure out who they are meant to be. The ending is when abstract artiness pays off and the emotional ending of her correspondence with her father is effectively dark.
Blonde is an exceptionally long and sometimes pretentious experience that does lots of terrible things to the main character. Naturally, it got a 14 minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival probably because it’s harrowing or whatever. But for all the stuff that is wrong, the main performance is riveting and it has bits of powerful impact.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel and Julianne Nicholson