‘Where does dreaming end and madness begin?’ ponders Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) in Andrew Dominik’s epic, warts-and-all dramatisation of the iconic star’s life. The ungenerous answer would be about halfway through the film, when its endless visual trickery begins to wear thin and one more scene of pill-chugging despair might just tip you over the edge.
More than a decade in the making and blessed with all the riches Netflix’s backing can buy you, Blonde has been billed as a feminist reimagining of the life of the actress, pin-up and icon – not least by author Joyce Carol Oates, whose bestselling novel forms the basis of Dominik’s script. The ‘18’ rating slapped on it has hinted at a no-holds-barred exploration of the star’s sexual liberation.
But it’s hard to sense much feminist power in a story so reluctant to give Monroe the slightest agency. Instead, Blonde offers a ponderously Freudian vision of her life, in which a conveyor belt of exploitative, cruel and intellectually snobbish men are co-opted as surrogates for the dad who walked out on her as a child.
After a shrill prelude that shows a seven-year-old Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) being tormented by her mentally ill mother (Mare of Easttown’s Julianne Nicholson), the anguish never really relents. Toggling between black-and-white cinematography and colour without much rhyme or reason, Dominik charts a litany of toxic lovers (Bobby Carnavale is the lunkish Joe DiMaggio and Caspar Phillipson plays a sleazy JFK) and a Weinstein-esque sexual encounter with a studio head that tinges all her future acting triumphs with a sense of shame.
Initially, Blonde strives to show her talent as an actress. There are immaculate recreations of screen tests and film sets. But it ends up doubling down on the idea that she was impossible to work with, dependent on drugs and increasingly dislodged from reality. Which all may be true, but hardly presents a revisionist view of the myths that have come to surround her.
It’s hard to sense much feminist power in a story that rarely gives Monroe the slightest agency
Don’t rock up for that much-touted odyssey of sexual liberation, either. There’s an early tryst with ‘the Juniors’ – Charlie Chaplin Jr and Edward G Robinson Jr – the handsomely vampiric scions of Hollywood legends who open the actress up to pleasure, but shrug off her attempts to connect emotionally. The dynamic between the three brings a much-needed tang of subversion to a film that, for all its formal experimentation, feels oddly conventional.
None of this is Ana de Armas’s fault. The Cuban actress stole No Time to Die in about ten minutes flat and makes this much meatier role her own in a flash. But while she captures Monroe’s breathy voice, physicality and fragility perfectly, she gets little chance to showcase her strength or smarts. When she surprises her future husband Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) with her insight and intuition, it hints at a deeper bond with the playwright that Blonde just as swiftly jettisons.
‘I signed up for a luxury cruise,’ Armas’s Monroe wryly notes of her Hollywood career at one point, ‘but I’m in steerage, paddling.’ For all its freedom to reimagine her life and rescue her from cultural victimhood, Blonde is just a bit too willing to chuck her overboard and watch her flounder.
Blonde premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It launches on Netflix worldwide Sep 28.