The biopic may remain the stalest genre in American filmmaking, but that’s never stopped thirsty actors and deluded directors from teaming up to mine the lives of dead famous people for Oscar clout. “Blonde,” Andrew Dominik’s first feature since 2012’s blunt force, anti-capitalist crime drama “Killing Them Softly,” is the latest attempt at harnessing the power of legacy. Dominik enlists Ana de Armas to portray Norma Jean Mortenson, the woman we all knew as Marilyn Monroe.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalized novel about Marilyn’s life, “Blonde” eschews the cradle-to-the-grave approach to biographical storytelling for a more subjective take on the movie star’s mythology. It’s refreshing to see someone color outside the lines of a tired cinematic tradition, but Dominik’s many wild indulgences prove too chaotic.
Despite housing the most sumptuous cinematography in a Netflix original picture since “Roma,” (the last film Emmanuel Lubezski shot for the service) “Blonde” is a vicious, exhausting, and often ugly film to behold. Dominik, emboldened by Oates’ prose, abstracts the known facts of Marilyn’s life into a nightmarish hall of mirrors. At every turn, striking observations about the trauma of her upbringing uncomfortably brush up against tawdry inferences about her tortured love life.
The result is a movie that aims to place the viewer into Marilyn’s perspective, but largely succeeds in portraying the many tragedies of her life in such garish ways as to imply purposeful parody.
From the haunted house prologue of little Norma Jean’s abuse at the hands of her unwell mother (Julianne Nicholson), the only true constants in “Blonde” are pain, exploitation, and yearning, repeatedly repackaged in every subsequent relationship she forms as an adult. Whether it be the seemingly sweet throuple she finds herself in with the wayward sons of Edward G. Robinson and Charlie Chaplin (Evan Williams and Xavier Samuel), or the misguided marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), Marilyn plays second fiddle to the men in her life.
Initially, Dominik finds a fascinating thread for de Armas to unravel with her performance. Through scenes set during acting lessons, Norma Jean is taught to plumb her painful past to fuel her work on screen, but it’s clear that the brunt of her performing takes place as Marilyn Monroe, a wholesale invention of the industry she begrudgingly adapts to and learns, in time, to subvert.
Viewers may bristle at the reductive nature of Marilyn’s characterization through the film’s second half, portrayed as little more than a pill-popping baby doll with daddy issues, but de Armas sinks her teeth into what she’s given in the first half such that it carries through even to the more absurd sequences later in the film.
But that wild, hallucinatory tone becomes the film’s gift and curse to bear. Compare it to another three-hour-long biopic about one of the nation’s most controversial and storied icons from earlier this year, Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” Luhrmann throws everything but the kitchen sink, stylistically, at the viewer from the jump, creating a world that is blatantly and proudly outside the confines of reality to wrestle with Elvis more as an idea than as a person.
For every envelope-pushing but inspired piece of visual business, like a particularly steamy threesome segueing to footage from Marilyn’s film “Niagra,” there’s something so ghastly as to seem a joke, like Marilyn’s ongoing conversations with the CGI fetuses she’s aborted and miscarried. When the film focuses directly from Marilyn’s POV, and the audio is drowned out by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ dirge of a score, crowds of men engulf her, their mouths contorting into obscene shapes to shout her name. But by the film’s end, the horror of it all drifts from David Lynch to “Paranormal Activity,” and all of Dominik’s painterly cinematic instincts give way to harrowing and borderline insulting depictions of rape and abuse.
Your mileage may vary with regards to the uproarious discourse surrounding the film’s gender politics, but those passionate arguments seem like a privilege for anyone able to make it through the runtime unscathed. In the end, “Blonde” feels like an unfortunate monkey’s paw from everyone who has ever wished for Netflix to release more movies that don’t feel created by algorithms. Sometimes an auteur unencumbered by any sort of real oversight can do far more damage.
“Blonde” is currently streaming on Netflix.