Andrew Dominik’s Fictionalized Biopic Of Marilyn Monroe Is A Relentless, Brutal Statement On Celebrity [Venice]

Jan 2, 2023

No film at the Venice Film Festival not called “Don’t Worry Darling” has attracted such morbid fascination as Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe not-a-biopic, “Blonde.” Turns out that “morbid” qualifier is soft, to say the least: to call “Blonde” relentless would be about as immense an understatement as one can conjure of a movie that subjects its lead, Ana de Armas’ fictionalized Monroe, to two hours and forty-seven minutes of unending sexual torture, leering voyeurism, and devastating dehumanization. 
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Much has already been made about the X-ratedness of it all, but god, this is — by design — soul-sapping stuff, leaving you bloodied and brutalized. Adapted from Joyce Carroll Oates’ fictionalized historical novel of the same name, “Blonde,” really, isn’t a Monroe movie at all: plot aside, you could supplant real-name Norma Jeane for Britney Spears or Kim Kardashian, the overarching statement being less on Monroe’s lamentable suffering than the broader violence enacted against women in the public eye. It’s shot and cut together like a snuff movie by way of an epic war drama: paparazzi flashbulbs, piercingly loud with each aggressive click of the shutter, are rendered smoking gun barrels, Dominik emphasizing the blood and viscera of each terrible assault.
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That’s not to say that the 54-year-old provocateur throws all convention to the wind. We do get something of a whistle-stop tour inspired by Monroe’s life, starting with a snapshot of her modest childhood in Los Angeles. Her mom shows off some of the foibles that Monroe, as seen in “Blonde,” would come to adopt: she’s a heavy drinker, caught up in frequent bouts of despair in the wake of abandonment by Monroe’s father (a phantomic figure throughout). It’s 1933: a terrible fire has broken out in the hills overlooking the L.A. ‘burbs, ash falling like snow from clouds of deep-black smoke. Here’s an early example of the unsettling visual beauty of “Blonde”: framed with a whole cornucopia of aspect ratios, and variously captured in color and monochrome, Dominik shows off a lot of his signature technical pizzazz. In the early L.A. sequence, cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s images are licked with fire and crackling embers; later scenes, shot in black-and-white with noir-esque shadows, boast eerily sumptuous chiaroscuro.
Kid Monroe is sent to an orphanage, and after that early moment of misery, we jump immediately forward to her early twenties, as she racks up her first Hollywood gigs. She’s clearly talented, invested in the craft, and, in pointed contrast to the “ditz” Monroe caricature that unfortunately pervades, demonstrates real bookishness. Not that any of the (male) powers that be give a shit: she’s raped by a studio exec at her first audition, an act that haunts her for the rest of her life. Most of the narrative beats take on a form like this: every achievement is undermined by devastation, each attack compounding until she’s graphically torn asunder. Did we say “Blonde” is relentless? In fairness to Dominik, events like these are simply his thesis literalized, even if they broadly come at the expense of his subject’s agency. 
This isn’t really a movie that works in shades. Rather, it’s all pitch black: the moments of levity are incredibly fleeting, and so often tragically beholden to an awful person and consequence. Her first relationship covered in “Blonde,” a threesome frisson with Cass (the son of Charlie Chaplin, played by Xavier Samuel) and Eddy (another nepotism baby, portrayed by Evan Williams), percolates with rare sweetness but is deemed too risqué by Monroe’s management to continue. Later, they provide partner Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale, great as a brute) with her nude snaps; Cass turns out to play an insidious trick on Monroe that follows her for most of her adult life. Her relationship with playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) is covered in brief and offers something of a romantic respite, but still, the trauma of the past proves too potent — only worsened by the loss of her child. It’s one of many times she miscarries, by the way: in what is going to surely be one of Dominik’s more questionable provocations, she speaks to the fetus in a dream sequence, begging for forgiveness. Yes, the movie is this batshit throughout.
De Armas is expectedly convincing, even if the script doesn’t really give her that much to do aside from wailing in grief and, often, literal pain. This is the greatest fault with “Blonde”: though Dominik’s ideological purpose is altogether convincing, getting his ideas across too often comes at the expense of this version of Monroe’s agency. She is reduced to a bit of womanly stock to be beaten again, again and again, in a truly stomach-churning, spine-grasping fashion. The reactions around me in my screening to Monroe’s manifold beatings, terrible howls, and other expressions of abject misery felt like microcosms for those that will no doubt emerge from “Blonde” as a whole: some loudly exclaimed their disgust; some wept into tissues, others simply hid behind their hands.
Though it’s a horrendous thing to endure, it’s difficult not to respect the subversions that Dominik plays with. There’s a meta wink-and-a-nudge to de Armas’ big-name casting, for example, coming by way of a voiceover exploring Monroe’s stardom… while she’s forced into sucking off John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson, portraying the much-mythologized ex-Prez as a wanton bigamist; a big, bold move you’d seldom get from an American filmmaker). De Armas keeps her native accent, creating space from the biographical trappings “Blonde” is clearly trying to avoid — further contributing to the sense that this is about an idea, a concept, and not so much a historical figure. Awards chatter is inevitable, and de Armas is genuinely terrific, but one can’t help but feel that immediate Oscars precognition will sort of miss the point: few elements of the filmmaking ecosystem so embody the commodification and voyeurism of Hollywood as the awards race.
This is a nasty, queasy, unforgiving piece of work. It is utterly devoid of hope. It’s as shocking as any slasher, as horrifying as any grizzly bit of wartime realism — yet there’s something so compelling about the director’s broader argument, and it’s rendered with rare visual deftness, with some big swing moments that land terrifically. Whatever the case, we’ll be litigating this one for years. Which Dominik, no doubt, will deem it a massive success. [B]
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