Ana de Armas plays Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde.” Photo courtesy of Netflix
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 17 (UPI) —Ana de Armas is heartbreaking in her performance as Marilyn Monroe. However, Blonde, now in select theaters, eschews the traditional biopic so much, it ends up being less informative or emotional.
As a child, Norma Jeane’s (Lily Fisher) mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), tells her that Clark Gable is her father. Gladys is abusive and suicidal, so ultimately committed to a hospital while Norma Jeane is sent to an orphanage.
As an adult calling herself Marilyn Monroe (de Armas), she navigates her Hollywood career and relationships with famous men. Though chronological, the impressionistic narrative feels more like a dream of Monroe’s life than a narrative, for better or worse.
Monroe’s life was unquestionably tragic, as she died at age 36. However, Blonde handles much of Monroe’s tragedies in a way that could still be exploiting them for attention and Oscar bait.
Blonde is rated NC-17 and the film’s approach to sex feels like a horny teenager who thinks he’s “mature” because he made it avant-garde. So the image warps during the sex scene, but the film still lingers on Monroe’s threesome with the Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy G. Robinson, Jr. (Evan Williams) and performing oral sex on John F. Kennedy (Casper Phillipson).
One particularly graphic, though artistic, shot in an abortion scene probably pushed the film over R-rated territory. In the JFK scene, though not explicit, a long take closeup on de Armas’s face is still suggestive enough.
Some of writer/director Andrew Dominik’s artistic flourishes prove to have thematic resonance by the end of the nearly three-hour film. Signposts of Norma Jeane’s childhood recur three times, suggesting an early wound she could never heal.
Monroe also calls all her husbands daddy, as she longs to meet her biological father.
When photographers invade a private, isolated scene, the surreality of that moment makes sense, even though the physical photographers came out of nowhere. When the mouths of screaming fans elongate to a disturbing degree, that makes sense as a subjective representation of the overwhelming pressure of fame.
Other nonlinear ideas seem random. The film alternates between square and widescreen aspect ratios, or color and black and white with no regularity.
At first, it appears that black and white represents Monroe’s real life while color represents her Hollywood fantasy. But then no, several scenes of her movies are presented in black and white too.
At first, Blonde only shows de Armas re-enacting famous Monroe movie scenes on the screen in a theater, which is empty the first time and full by the time Gentlemen Prefer Blondes shows. But then, we see her on the set of later films. Other movie scenes are presented full frame, and then the theater motif returns.
A very basic interpretation could be that the black and white scenes represent sadness, and they certainly mimic mopey Calvin Klein commercials with ambiguous nonsense dialogue. But then Monroe’s happy moments are shown in black and white too.
Maybe this didn’t all make sense to Norma Jeane as she lived through it either, but she’s unfortunately not the one who got to tell her story. This was first interpreted in Joyce Carol Oates‘ book and then again by Dominik.
The level of inference in Blonde goes far beyond dramatic license. It could be irresponsible to present a historical figure in this fashion, even though they explicitly call it fiction.
The most interesting parts of Blonde are when it focuses on Monroe’s Hollywood struggles. She negotiates her Gentlemen salary against Jane Russell‘s.
After one audition, the male producers criticize her performance. However, the actors in that scene deliver their critiques with such artificiality, it appears to comment on the hypocrisy of male judgments of female talent.
Monroe’s marriages to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) are also included. Her addictions are mercifully relegated to the end of the film, though there’s no avoiding the abuses she endured in her marriages.
That the film itself is so challenging narratively makes it all the more remarkable how consistent de Armas can be in her performance. She nails Monroe’s wispy voice without making it a caricature and elicits empathy for the tragedy behind the glamorous persona.
The world doesn’t necessarily need another biopic covering the same ground as My Week with Marilyn or Norma Jean and Marilyn, but Blonde is so obscure it doesn’t do its subject justice. On the plus side, Blonde may be weird, but it’s never boring.
Blonde premieres on Netflix Sept. 28.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.