- Directed by Andrew Dominik
- Written by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates
- Starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody and Bobby Cannavale
- Classification NC-17; 166 minutes
- Opens in select theatres Sept. 23; streaming on Netflix starting Sept. 28
Director Andrew Dominik makes achingly beautiful, heartbreaking films (The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, a pair of Nick Cave concert films). He also makes deliberately ugly, nasty ones (Killing Them Softly, Chopper). Blonde, the filmmaker’s latest and infamously long-delayed production, is both. An extraordinarily cynical, meta-contextual epic tracing the rise and fall of Marilyn Monroe, Dominik’s movie is a supremely uncomfortable and brutal look at America’s most beautiful woman.
Loosely adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel – which is less a straight biography of Monroe as a way for the author to use the actress as a heavy-duty metaphor for all of America’s many cultural ills, a sort of Moby Dick in a rhinestone-covered dress – Blonde is a precisely engineered nightmare. From Monroe’s childhood to superstardom, Dominik presents her as a passive victim of never-ending tragedy: neglect, abuse, heartbreak, addiction. And in doing so, Dominik creates a cinematic experience so repellent that it is destined to be loathed and misunderstood, written off as crass and opportunistic just like those who profited off Monroe’s body during her own life.
But while there are moments – long stretches, actually – where Dominik jumps the distance from critiquing cinema’s capacity for exploitation to being an active participant, the ultimate effectiveness of Blonde cannot be dismissed. If you have the patience and stomach to engage with the intentionally problematic conversation that Dominik is trying to have, then the film’s payoffs are as grand as any of Monroe’s onscreen performances.
Shot in a variety of aspect ratios, film stocks and colour schemes, Blonde is as much a movie about an actress as it is about how the image of that actress was finessed, contorted and manipulated by those with the power to do so. Famous Monroe moments that are burned into the collective culture’s brain – her dress billowing up during the subway-grate scene in The Seven Year Itch, her red-carpet appearance for the premiere of Some Like It Hot – are refashioned here into slow-moving horror shows.
At times breaking the fourth wall – star Ana de Armas’s voice sometimes shifts from the all-American coo of Monroe to the actress’s own Spanish-accented self – and at other moments confident that there are no walls in American pop culture at all, the film is as fiercely ambitious and alienating as the industry it is skewering.
At its best moments, though, Dominik’s confrontational aesthetics meld perfectly with the fierce performances of his cast, starting with a powerful de Armas, who never once lets the many iterations of her character get away from her control. But Adrien Brody (playing Arthur Miller, here only named “The Playwright”) and Bobby Cannavale (Joe DiMaggio, or “The Ex-Athlete”) also make surprisingly lasting impressions, with the former finding a disturbing through-line of delusion in his devotion to Marilyn, and the latter pummelling the screen with a brutishness that is primal, revolting, unforgettable.
Inevitably, audiences will be tip-toeing over to Blonde out of the same kind of salacious curiosity that originally drew moviegoers to Monroe. Namely: Just what did Dominik do here to earn the film the dreaded NC-17 rating in the U.S.? It turns out, not an awful lot – at least not in the way that panting flesh-hounds might expect. There are two harrowing abortion sequences in the film that employ what I’m going to politely call a vaginal point-of-view, and there is another late-film scene in which Monroe is seen – obliquely – performing forced oral sex on John F. Kennedy (excuse me, “The President”).
These are moments that will not corrupt young viewers, only rightly traumatize them. Which is, of course, Dominik’s intent. Life can be ugly, even – or rather especially – when captured on camera.
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