'Blonde' review: a primal take on Marilyn Monroe’s tragic existence

Ana de Armas plays the Hollywood star in the part-fiction film of her life

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

This year, we’ve already seen Elvis Presley be given the big screen biopic treatment in Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. Now it’s the turn of Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, an unconventional look at the 1950s Hollywood bombshell whose life — like Presley's — ended in tragedy.

Playing her is Ana de Armas, the Cuban actress known for Blade Runner 2049 and James Bond movie No Time to Die. She bares her soul as Monroe, the emotionally vulnerable starlet, born born Norma Jeane Baker, who was preyed upon by older, morally bankrupt men.

Blonde

Director: Andrew Dominik
Stars: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale
Rating: 3/5

With its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival on Thursday, this Netflix-backed film comes adapted from the celebrated book by Joyce Carol Oates, published in 2000. It’s been a project Australian director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has been trying to make for close to 15 years, but it’ll surely infuriate some looking for a more straightforward take. When the star refers to “a happy ending of a long, confused movie”, she could easily be talking about Dominik’s work.

The very opening scene, with her unhinged mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) driving her recklessly amid Californian wildfires to visit the father she never knew, is typical of the director’s approach, a blazing hellish landscape that is, presumably, to represent the world as Norma Jeane sees it. As she whirls through Hollywood, she dreams of playing in Chekhov, not the comic roles that she becomes famous for. Her stage persona is a construct, nothing more. “I’m a slave to this Marilyn Monroe,” she laments, imprisoned by a studio contract system that’ll pay her peanuts for Gentleman Prefer Blondes.

From left, 'Blonde' stars Julianne Nicholson, Adrien Brody, director Andrew Dominik and Ana de Armas attend a photo call for the film at the 79th Venice International Film Festival. Getty

Dominik switches between monochrome and colour, almost at will, further enhancing this idea of the volatile vortex that Monroe is sucked into. Her husbands two and three, ex-baseball player Joe DiMaggio and Death of a Salesman scribe Arthur Miller, are known as "The Ex-Athlete" and "The Playwright". Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody, respectively, play these men in Monroe's life, although the impressionistic approach to scenes and dialogue exchanges doesn’t leave them with much room to evolve as characters.

There are breathless moments in Blonde. At the premiere of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, she arrives to crowds of baying men, mouths open, the scene slowed down, before the film’s classic “nobody’s perfect” pay-off line is delivered on screen to sped-up applause. But clocking in at two-and-three-quarter hours, there’s a lot of fat here too. Like the moment a worse-for-wear Monroe receives a parcel, then ferrets around her apartment for five minutes looking for her handbag to tip the delivery man.

Above all, this is a very primal take on her tragic existence. Her lack of a father figure, her failed desire to have children, and her increasing reliance on alcohol and prescription pills are all accounted for here. It’s frequently like stepping into someone’s nightmare. Or, as she puts it, “Where does dreaming end and madness begin?”

It’s poetic at times, but also portentous; a film that’s often tough to get a grasp on as images blur across the screen. Does it say much new about Monroe? Not really, but it has an artistic vision and it pursues it relentlessly.

As an attempt to live inside the troubled siren, Dominik deserves credit, but it’s a slog through 1950s Hollywood that will clearly leave some cold.

Updated: September 08, 2022, 5:01 PM
Blonde

Director: Andrew Dominik
Stars: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale
Rating: 3/5

MORE FROM THE NATIONAL