Blonde is Brutal
Perhaps the most discussed and depicted figure of 20th century American cultural mythology, Marilyn Monroe's greatest post-mortem indignity might be Andrew Dominik's tasteless and cruel depiction of her life's tragedies (both real and imagined) in Blonde. Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring Ana de Armas, Blonde seemingly exhumes Monroe for the singular purpose of humiliating her all over again. A grueling three hour drama that verges on torture porn, Blonde is an uncomfortable watch at best and a punishing viewing experience at its worst—which unfortunately, is often.
A cradle-to-grave biopic embellished by Oates's fictionalized accounts of private moments, Blonde follows Norma Jean (de Armas), the once and future Marilyn Monroe, through a sequence of her life's many tragedies and downfalls, including her marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) and trysts with Charlie Chaplin, Jr. (Xavier Samuel), Eddie Robinson, Jr. (Evan Williams), and John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). If you're noticing a pattern here, you're not wrong. Dominik's Monroe is defined almost exclusively by her (often abusive) relationships with men—the one notable exception being her equally troubled relationship with her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson).
Positioned as a star vehicle for Ana de Armas, the film's failings are not her fault. Her casting has been the subject of some controversy; de Armas, of course, is Cuban, and neither looks nor sounds like Monroe (notably, little effort is made to hide de Armas's accent). That in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially since Blonde is ostensibly more concerned with Monroe the symbol than Monroe the actress or Monroe the person (and I'd almost always rather see an interesting interpretation of a famous figure than mere mimicry). Unfortunately, Dominik never asks her to play anything other than mere victimhood, and there's little de Armas can do to overcome the film's one-dimensional approach. Still, she's an undeniably compelling performer, and I hope that Blonde doesn't dissuade future filmmakers from giving her leading roles that actually make use of her magnetic screen presence.
While Dominik might get de Armas's appeal as an actor, it's less clear that Blonde understands Monroe's. One of her defining characteristics as a performer, While it maybe understands her status as a sex symbol, the film is so fixated on punishing her for her sexuality (including in several gratuitous and graphic scenes of sexual assault that more than justify the NC-17 rating) that it entirely sidesteps any consideration of her talent as a performer, whether comedic or dramatic. But even more frustrating, Dominik's conception of Monroe is so absurdly naive that it strains credulity. It's obvious from Monroe's performances as "dumb blondes" in films like Some Like It Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that she was in on the joke; her characters' sex appeal belies their intelligence. But Blonde denies her any agency as a performer, rendering her instead as a superficial creature lacking any interiority—exactly the criticism of Hollywood's treatment of the real Monroe that Blonde ostensibly wants to make. (for more on the ways Blonde fundamentally misreads its subject, I recommend Angelica Jade Bastién's excellent piece in Vulture)
That's not to say that Blonde doesn't have any positive aspects. It's largely a handsomely designed film, despite the somewhat disorienting aesthetic choices to vacillate between color and black-and-white cinematography and shift among several aspect ratios seemingly at random. And although they don't get much to work with, the largely talented cast delivers mostly solid work—Cannavale and Brody in particular are able to flesh out DiMaggio and Miller admirably in remarkably little screentime. But all in all, it's hard to recommend Blonde for anyone but the most masochistic of viewers.
Blonde is currently streaming on Netflix.