Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) is the world's most famous actor and celebrity, beloved and adored by the public. Despite her fabulous public image, her personal life is riddled with drug misuse and abusive relationships with a former baseball star (Bobby Cannavale), a celebrated playwright (Adrien Brody), and even the President of the United States (Caspar Phillipson)...
Biopics have become a steady business for movie studios, so it's truly exhilarating to sit down and watch 'Blonde' just throw the rulebook out the window and refuse to follow any of the safe and accessible routes. It doesn't even follow a rigid timeline of events. Yet, 'Blonde' has little to say about Marilyn Monroe the actor, and even less to say about her filmography. Though the premieres of 'Some Like It Hot' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' feature prominently, and her screentest for 'Don't Bother To Knock' forms a key scene, they're used to highlight how alienated she was from everyone around her, and how her abilities were never taken seriously. Later on, Ana de Armas as Monroe screams about being made to be a piece of meat. Yet, in between these scenes, she's frequently seen topless and, in one scene, performs fellatio while thinking of herself as a softcore porn actress.
It's not that 'Blonde' is titillating - except for perhaps one scene involving a threeway with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson - but it does seem to catch itself in its own trap. There are more than a few scenes where Monroe as a concept is presented in glorious technicolour, with de Armas lipsyncing to 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' with ease, but then later we see her scratching her face while trying to sing 'I Wanna Be Loved By You'. Indeed, the final moments of 'Blonde' are telling - her body is laid out, yet her spirit grips a pillow and makes come-to-bed-eyes at the camera. Even in death, she is still being presented as a sex symbol. 'Blonde' shouldn't have the right to judge its audience.
For her part, Ana de Armas absolutely hurls herself at the screen in this. She is fully and completely turning herself over and over for the role, completely fearless, and completely committed. It's terrifying stuff, and her willingness to chase Monroe down into the very darkest, most haunting moments of her life makes it one of the strongest performances of the year so far. The men in her life are equally frightening. Though he only has one scene, Caspar Phillipson truly makes an impact in portraying JFK as a languid sleaze. Bobby Cannavale, playing Joe DiMaggio, is less impressive when compared to Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller. Brody not only looks physically similar to Miller, but also gets at his vulnerability as a writer and how he was somewhat cowed and nebbish around Monroe.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik starts off 'Blonde' in a dreamlike state, pulled from Monroe's fractured childhood memories, quickly jumping over her early years to her rising career in Hollywood and her first forays into acting. Dominik correctly presents the movie like it's a psychological horror, something along the lines of Ken Russell's 'Altered States' or David Lynch's 'Mullholland Dr.', not as a hagiography like Baz Luhrmann's 'Elvis'. As Monroe's mental illness grows, 'Blonde' becomes more and more outlandish and frightening. Before this though, the terror is still lucid. One scene shows Monroe posing in her familiar stance over a subway air duct for 'The Seven Year Itch', but it pulls out to see a gigantic, arena-sized crowd around her, baying and clawing for her - all of them men.
'Blonde' is a frequently challenging watch, both in terms of its pacing and its content. Some scenes feel as though they are intended for shock value, to deliberately put the audience on edge more than demonstrate what is going inside the mind of Monroe at that given moment. Moreover, it takes frequent liberties with the truth and its conjectures could be construed as emotionally manipulative. Her schizophrenia, never officially diagnosed but suggested by her psychiatrist after her passing, forms a key pillar of the third act but ripples throughout the entire story. Still, if you want an accurate biopic of Marilyn Monroe, this is not it and it certainly never presents itself as such.
It's not at all surprising that 'Blonde' has polarised critics, and will easily do the same to audiences. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, you don't get to look and see whatever you want to see in her. She isn't portrayed as a blank canvas on to which we can project desire, tragedy, sex appeal, whatever.
Here, we are forced to watch her go through the meat grinder. What comes out the other side is meant to sicken us.