A lyrical tale of misery and betrayal, Blonde is sprawling, but only skin deep

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Sept. 29, 2022

Netflix, On Now
2.5 out of 5

Marilyn Monroe biopics are a dime a dozen — the most recent being My Week with Marilyn in 2011. They all hint at the subject Blonde treats as the main course: Norma Jeane Mortenson’s lack of agency. At no point was she in the driver’s seat of her career (or her life, for that matter) and her dependence on no-good men caused her untimely death. Also, drugs.

But to what degree is that true? Blonde has no answers, just a litany of tragedies: three abortions, many breakups, and one sadistic twist at the end. Critics like The New Yorker’s Richard Brody have described the film as The Passion of the Marilyn. I’m not as glib, but I can’t deny they have a point.

Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde opens with Norma Jeane dealing with her schizophrenic mother (Julianne Nicholson, Mare of Easttown), who self-medicates with copious amounts of alcohol. The two live in Los Angeles, and mommie dearest has the girl convinced her father is a studio exec who, at any moment, will come and rescue them. The call never comes, and Norma Jeane ends up in an orphanage when her mom is confined to a mental institution.

Norma Jeane learns early on she can count on her looks (the scene in which she gets her first role is haunting). Her yearning for a father figure gets her in terrible relationships — Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, her dalliance with John F. Kennedy — all of which end when the damaged bombshell becomes too inconvenient. She put it perfectly: they all went to bed with Marilyn Monroe, and woke up with Norma Jeane.

While styled as historical fiction, Blonde works best as a horror story: what happens when a woman, stripped of common sense by her craving for paternal love, is used and abused by the men she allows in her life. Sound chauvinistic? You bet it is.

It’s a mystery why director Andrew Dominik, who also adapted the book, went from complex, inscrutable characters like those in Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James to the gallery of simpletons in Blonde who all seem to have a single attribute that explains their behaviour, past and present.

Why give Blonde two-and-a-half prairie dogs then? One reason: Ana de Armas. The Cuban actress succeeds at making Norma Jeane a believable character in spite of being reduced to a couple of character traits. De Armas separates herself from previous Marilyns by transcending the caricature and the posturing. Her pain feels palpable, and saves the movie from becoming 165 minutes of torture porn. She also nails Monroe’s breathy, high pitched voice.

The film was rated NC-17 in the US, a first for Netflix. But if you come for the tantalizing factor, you’re in for a disappointment. Blonde has been judiciously edited to prevent ill-advised titillation. In one particular sex scene, there’s a power differential that amounts to abuse that’s profoundly uncomfortable.

In the end, Blonde comes up short not because of what it shows, but what it doesn’t. Marilyn Monroe was actually a competent performer (see Niagara), an entrepreneur, and had opinions on set she wasn’t shy about sharing. Blonde feels like a lost opportunity, given the largesse of the canvas and a performer who strikes all the right notes. ■