After two hours and 45 minutes of Blonde, you might think you would have no more questions for Andrew Dominik’s splashy, oppressive portrait of Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas. Think again. You may, for instance, still ask why, after the ovation at the premiere of Some Like It Hot, sped up as if to mimic 1970s TV comic Benny Hill, Dominik shoots de Armas vomiting pills from the point of view of the toilet bowl. The director seems to have only recently learned that a misogynist film industry brutalised Monroe. Outraged, he now seeks to replace their tainted visions with his own: a stylised tableau of big-screen fellatio and blood spots like stigmata on a floral dress.
Dominik’s endless attention-grabbing images can be heady too. Early on, the child that was Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) is driven by her schizophrenic mother into a wildfire in the Los Angeles hills. Flames lick the H of the Hollywood sign. The message is not subtle: Here Be Monsters. You feel the heat of the infernal regardless. The scene plays out in vivid colour. Stepping forward into adulthood, we slip back into movie-magic black-and-white. The sense of scrambled time works beautifully.
But then the whole film toggles at random between monochrome and colour, rendered to resemble vintage film stock. In theory, it should evoke the inner chaos of a woman lost between movies and reality. In fact, it looks like Instagram. The visuals might seem less crass if they didn’t adorn what is basically a trudging timeline, personal miseries circled and underscored to create a Tinseltown Joan of Arc. The literary flights of Joyce Carol Oates’ source novel give way to the headbangingly literal. De Armas, a gifted actress, is adrift.
Why do the film-makers work this hard to impress an audience they clearly consider a bit dim? Then again, how much Blonde even rates Monroe is another interesting question. Asked by Sight and Sound magazine in 2012 to list the greatest movies ever made, Dominik named several with trace elements here: the ruinous self-loathing of Raging Bull, the identity crisis of Mulholland Drive. But none of them starred Marilyn. It makes sense watching a film that fleetingly credits her for understanding Chekhov, but otherwise shrinks her to fit the director’s grand design.
Here, her screen presence is mere raw instinct, her work fundamentally trivial. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is painstakingly restaged, but only so that later, after an abortion, a cold inner voice can whisper: “For this you gave up your baby.” Like the reproachful talking foetus we later see — yes, you read that right — the kindest word might be misjudged.
The movie invites comparison with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, another tribute to a fallen star, filtered through a look-at-me aesthetic. But Luhrmann at least saw Presley as a spectacular talent. Blonde just takes Monroe for a victim. As in the worst days of old Hollywood, heaven help her if she wanted to be more.
In US cinemas now, in UK cinemas from September 23 and on Netflix from September 28
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