Blonde movie review: Ana de Armas’s Marilyn Monroe drama does nothing to help reclaim its subject’s power

·4-min read
Blonde movie review: Ana de Armas’s Marilyn Monroe drama does nothing to help reclaim its subject’s power

Poor Marilyn Monroe. Misunderstood, sexually abused, mentally ill, abandoned and objectified, her life is a real Hollywood tragedy; a sad and sorry tale dismally familiar to millions. Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel of the same name, and is therefore very much a work of fiction rather than a biopic, albeit one based on known events in the actress’s life.

Dominik has stayed fairly true to the novel: three characters are embodied in the same woman. There’s Norma Jeane Baker, the poor fostered child who wins beauty pageants and emits an aura of wholesome natural loveliness; there’s Marilyn Monroe, the uber-sexualised glamour girl movie star; and there’s the Blonde, a symbolic virginal creature that is both admired and degraded.

The issue with the film is that the first two personae are so distinctly separate and signposted so obviously: Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) points out the difference between herself and Marilyn, speaking of her in the third person as a completely separate entity, repeatedly throughout the 166 minutes of the film. Alright, we get the idea.

Blonde opens with Norma Jeane as a child in LA in the care of her single mum, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Gladys clearly suffers from delusions and is abusive, erratic and potentially very dangerous. She speaks obsessively of Norma Jeane’s mysterious and unnamed father, the only trace of whom is a photo and her mother’s promise that he is coming back for them. It’s not long before Gladys is carted off to the Norwalk Mental Hospital and Norma Jeane deposited at an orphanage – a damaged, vulnerable beauty ripe for both stardom and the awful things that come with it.

 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

Once she’s spotted thanks to her modelling work, Norma Jeane endures a casting couch rape, auditions where the men drool over her looks rather than pay attention to her performance, and is continuously thwarted in her attempts to be taken seriously while being trapped in that amazing body, breathily speaking her lines – in this instance, very much the Blonde persona of Oates’s novel.

Fictional characters, such as Cass Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. (Norma Jeane’s f*** buddies, forming a tight trio and sharing daddy issues), are interspersed with real-life figures such as JFK and Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). DiMaggio is depicted as your stereotypical Italian-American wife beater and his family – a bevy of stern women – are spiteful and dismissive of their new in-law.

Miller is also a bit of a creep: he underestimates Norma Jeane (he’s not the only one in her life to do so) and when he asks what he should call her, suggests: “you can be my Magda, my secret Magda” – Magda being the name of his first unrequited love – while twiddling his wedding ring. Norma Jeane’s father issues are rammed down our throats because she calls both her husbands “daddy”, a term that becomes unbearable to hear after the umpteenth utterance.

Much can be said about Norma Jeane’s agency, or lack thereof. She is almost completely powerless both in her personal relationships and in her business transactions. Only rarely is she glimpsed fighting for herself. She has unwanted abortions and this leads to possibly one of the most glaring issues with the film – the talking foetuses. At a time when women are once again fighting to retain control of their bodies and where a lack of agency looms, at least in terms of reproductive rights, for women in many countries, having cinematic foetuses asking not to be aborted comes like a punch in the privates.

 (Netflix)
(Netflix)

Despite these huge problems – along with the seemingly interminable running time – there are some positives. Dominik is a gifted and inventive filmmaker. Here he plays with the colour and speed of the film, and there are some interesting moments, particularly when Norma Jeane is at the cinema and we enter an oneiric world that can be both magical and nightmarish.

But the switch between black and white and colour doesn’t seem to have any real purpose (though the colour moments often beautifully recreate those gorgeous sun-soaked images of Monroe we know so well). There are shots that reproduce some of the actress’s most iconic moments, and the subway vent scene from The Seven-Year Itch is fantastic. However, for viewers of a certain age, seeing modern-day actors introduced into original film footage is reminiscent of Griff Rhys-Jones mugging in the 1980s Holsten Pils ads.

The cast is strong, with Nicholson and Brody giving particularly standout performances. De Armas is an engaging presence and – like the woman she portrays – is eminently watchable. She captures Monroe’s sexiness and vulnerability, yet she is given frustratingly little opportunity to evoke the woman’s intelligence and humour. When her terrible end comes, it feels like a blessed relief not just for the character, but for the viewer watching it happen.

Blonde is screening at the Venice Film Festival; it is released in cinemas on September 23 and on Netflix on September 28