You might feel like you need a shower afterwards. Blond, but hey, at least it’s not bland. In his first narrative feature in 10 years, Andre Dominique brings an intoxicating visual style and voyeuristic glow to Joyce Carol Oates’ 700+ page biographical fiction novel of the same name. A mythical fable about Marilyn Monroe as an unwanted child desired by millions, passed on by men as she desperately searched for someone to call “daddy” on her path to self-destruction, it’s a treatise on fame and the sex symbol that not only blurs reality with fantasy but also empathy with exploitation. Despite or because of all this, it is a must.
There’s a lot of good stuff here, especially a raw performance from Anne of Arms which exposes the most scrutinized woman in pop culture history, literally and metaphorically. But as he falters well past the 2 hour mark, sinking deeper into the nightmare, Blond becomes a grim, at times overwhelmingly unpleasant horror movie.
A dreamlike snuff movie.
The haunting feeling arises that in the supposed struggle between netflix and Dominik to chisel the long-gestating project to the waist, it could have benefited everyone if the director hadn’t prevailed. It is a work of such savage excess and dubious cruelty that it leaves you wondering how many times and in how many more creative ways will we continue to torture, degrade and kill this abused woman.
To eliminate a point, the vultures who took over a first trailer to attack the lack of authenticity of the Cuban actress de Armas playing Monroe must back down. Any quibbles about the accent are out of place, especially since his voice work is more than honorable enough. This is a freewheeling fever dream rendition of an iconic Hollywood creation, not a slavish facsimile.
De Armas creates a character much like Dominik’s script asks Norma Jeane to create a character – in the latter case, as an Actors Studio exercise, drawing a circle of light containing an alternate self to take with her wherever she goes. she goes. This pattern gets a bit overloaded as Marilyn questions which of them is real, though it’s not the fault of Armas’ game itself.
The breathy voice and the look of distant sensuality in eyes tinged with fear and confusion seem at first to veer into imitation. But de Armas fades into character, keeping you in the corner of the film — at least until an awkward interior monologue is delivered as Marilyn reluctantly performs oral sex on JFK (Caspar Phillipson). This scene – its quasi-pornographic detail arguably responsible for the NC-17 rating – signals the precise moment when the film is irreversibly off the rails.
Just in case that wasn’t shady enough, Dominik has Marilyn delivered and removed from the unnamed President’s hotel suite like a bag of meat by Secret Service agents; she is alarmed but barely conscious after a cross-country flight, drunk on pills and champagne. Without even a hello, the meadow then gestures for him to mind his penis while he’s stuck on a call regarding allegations of sexual misconduct. Don’t let me vomit, she thinks. You might feel the same.
The opening wastes no time setting up the psychological line of the absent father figure. On her birthday, young Norma Jeane’s (Julianne Nicholson) lopsided mother drags her into the bedroom where she slept in a drawer as a baby and points to a framed picture on the wall, telling the child that her father is a Hollywood bigwig whose identity must be kept secret. Her mother also clarifies that Norma Jeane was unwanted, at one point trying to drown her in the bathtub. The young girl is entrusted to neighbors when her mother is hospitalized and ends up in an orphanage.
Her teenage years and early twenties are a montage of magazine and pin-up shoots, including calendar nudes. Monroe’s early cinematic experiences are muddled, making her first screen role her brief but memorable appearance in All about Evepart obtained by submitting to rape in the office of Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (David Warshofsky).
She uses her intimate knowledge of trauma in her screen test to play the troubled babysitter in Don’t bother knocking, which makes the creative team laugh that she’s a natural candidate for the role. But let’s not forget for a minute how much women have been commodified by the studio system, its release comes with the boss’ comment, “Sweet Jesus, would you look at that little girl’s ass.”
Here and elsewhere, excerpts from films including niagara, The seven year old itch, men prefer blondes and Some like it hot are integrated by editor Adam Robinson in a collage-like visual approach that switches somewhat haphazardly between black and white and color and between changing aspect ratios.
One of Oates’ more bizarre fictional detours is a three-way relationship with Cass (Xavier Samuels) and Eddie (Evan Williams), the jaded offspring of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, respectively. Both describe themselves as the sons of men who never wanted it, establishing an affinity with Marilyn, not that it is played for emotion.
Dominik instead presents their sexually charged interlude as a Herb Ritts photoshoot, landing Marilyn on tabloid covers and on an operating table for a studio-arranged abortion just as her career takes off. This ordeal also prompts the introduction of a fetus camera, an unfortunate device used to explore her unfulfilled desire to have a child in the least subtle way possible.
Later, she is rebuffed while watching Men prefer blondes, launching into an interior monologue with her unborn child: “You killed your baby for that?” she asks. “That thing on the screen, it’s not you.” The script’s overly simplistic Freudian personality split is only slightly less obvious than the reproachful voice that continues to emerge from the womb. Yeah.
Dizzying images of Hollywood premieres, with a sea of flashes bursting and fans with grotesquely distorted mouths screaming for Marilyn’s attention, recur throughout, accompanied by an effective otherworldly score from the regular collaborators. by Dominik, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. These sequences contribute to the disorienting effect of a sudden fame that makes Marilyn fearful of following the same messy path that put her mother in a psychiatric ward. She is alone, scared and constantly violated by the Hollywood publicity machine.
Much of it is a fairly standard observation of celebrity hell, rarely far from cliché, albeit with the seductive imagery of a gifted visual storyteller. (Dominik works here with DP Chayse Irvin, best known for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.) The film actually becomes more emotionally engaging when it dwells on straight biographical chapters.
These include Marilyn’s stormy marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), identified as “the former athlete”, who is uncomfortable with his fame far eclipsing hers. He loses his temper and becomes violent Seven year itch subway grate scene, when delighted crowds gather to watch the cameras capture her billowing skirt in the breeze.
Better still, Marilyn’s escape from the pressures of Hollywood in the mid-1950s, seeking refuge in the New York theater, where she meets “The Playwright”, Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, the best of the supporting cast). It is here that Dominik takes a brief interest in the vulnerable human being at the center of the hallucinatory and hypersexualized circus. Miller for a time becomes one of the few men called “Dad” who acknowledges she has a brain, and their time away from the spotlight in Connecticut represents a reprieve in her life. But a miscarriage pushes her to the brink again.
Feeding her instability, Marilyn receives at regular intervals letters supposedly written by her anonymous father, who keeps promising to make himself known to her soon. This psychological torment turns into a merciless revelation when she learns the truth, and in that moment, you might feel as viciously abused as Marilyn.
While ignoring the conspiracy theories surrounding Monroe’s death, Dominik dives into the period of surveillance when his alliances with the Kennedys put her on the national security radar. But like almost everything else in Blond, the writer-director plays with the lines that separate truth from paranoia, reality from confused nightmare. The jittery sounds of high volume telephones and the constant haze of semi-consciousness thrust the film into sensational psychosexual trauma porn, regularly robbing the protagonist of all dignity.
The tragic dimension of a woman adored by the world, devoured by Hollywood and finally abandoned to her own despair in an ordinary little house in Brentwood resonates because we know the sad story of Marilyn. But it’s hard to ignore the feeling of unease as Dominik gets off on the vulgar spectacle. De Armas retains nothing related to the character’s pain. She deserves better.