Totally singular and happy to wallow in that fact, Andrew Dominik’s new opus Blonde, adapted for Netflix from the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, treats the life, mind, and persona of Marilyn Monroe as something to puzzle over exhaustively, as a monument intended to resonate beyond itself. With its depiction hinging on the notion of performing as an ego-disrupting, dissociative act, and with Ana de Armas’s performance making the veneer of stardom (and contentment) seem excruciatingly thin, Blonde becomes a long parade mostly of abjection inflicted by cruel and absent partners, patriarchs, and perhaps also something within the woman born Norma Jeane Mortenson herself.
While its too-scattered emotional highs and luminous, constantly experimental photography lend it qualities worth recommending, the film remains deeply off-balance in a way that might be deemed fitting, but still feels psychologically thin, suggesting that something didn’t make the emotional leap from page to screen (or footage to final cut). Dominik or his supervisors, unfortunately, fail to take the pulse of this in his direction of the edit, condemning the film to a loop of repetitious scenes which eventually cheapen one another through their shared likeness, weakening the film by its end.
Though the film provides ample competition (a score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, dazzling photography from Chayse Irvin), Ana de Armas’s starring performance inevitably must hold its center. Playing off the dual-identity premise posited by the script, which suggests “Marilyn” to be a sort of potent, captivating fiction and Norma Jean an oft-repressed, wounded creature constantly sacrificing to fuel the screen they’re both latched to, Blonde pitches Marilyn as a starlet and then star who’s eager to please but pained by the effort. De Armas slips into the role with vigor, foregrounding this attendant hurt; Dominik allows us glimpses of her acting roles only in glimmers (and often then only through distancing long shots of slavering cinemagoers looking on with us). In these rare glimpses in which we get to see what Marilyn can do onscreen (in movies, that is — within the world of the film) we’re invited less to partake emotionally in what she’s doing from moment to moment than to mull over the context that surrounds each film’s shoot and release.
The circumstances of Mortenson’s life remain, in Dominik’s telling, remarkably dire. From an upbringing shepherded (until she’s shooed off by her mentally ill and spiraling single mother to casting sessions in which producers extract grotesque concessions from her for roles), the materials of Mortenson’s life seem as though they should pollute what we see in her performances. But for the most part, they seem hidden beneath a fragile but briefly gleaming veneer; for us as viewers, her crowd-pleasing antics in which she tends to engage mostly sit beside her life with a kind of residual ironic dissonance. Echoing at turns Naomi Watts in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (but with less vigor in her happy moments) and Laura Dern from his Inland Empire (at her most lost bits), de Armas settles for something that isn’t quite new – it’s just tuned a little differently. In moments of joy, de Armas’s Norma seems raspy and desperate, as though gasping for air after time spent underwater starved of real connection. Clinging to a stubborn vein of hope, the mystery driving her character is less what troubled Marilyn/Norma than what keeps her going — dying at just 36, it seems almost miraculous in watching that she didn’t go much sooner.
The film’s photography flatters all this while doing so much more, unifying the film alongside de Armas’s performance with a wide array of visual motifs. New aspect ratios and filters flicker through the picture throughout, with most frames proving absolute models of care and refinement. Irvin shoots most scenes with a shallow-focus lens, forcing actors into an almost flattening space of confinement if they want to stay in focus through a whole scene. Frequently, some piece of them (a foot perched atop a stool, a gesturing hand against a back wall) will hang too far or close to the lens, just beginning to fuzz and blur. The suggestion here is twofold: One, that the presentation of the characters even to us onscreen is necessarily flattening, both to us and to the audiences for movies within the film, and, two, that the nature of this compression is both delicate and distorting, altering those who experience it on both sides of the projected frame. Alongside this, Blonde deploys a kind of signature filter, silvery-blue with flushes of peach, or pink within it; what’s been done is beyond me technically, but it’s used here to create images that prove breathtaking for their complexity and refinement.
A youthful love affair provides the visual and emotional summit of the film, a ménage à trois and the outings surrounding it giving Norma rare moments to bask in something that feels emotionally direct: for what seems the first time since childhood, her guard falls down. Treating a dalliance rumored in the star’s life as credible, Dominik and his team manage to capture both the richly felt resonance and the fleeting superficiality of a well-timed fling. Cutting together scenes at diners with ecstatic sexual contortions, Irvin pulls out all the stops to make the most of each actors’ figures, abstracting them in prismatic images with a deft air of creativity in a way that feels embracing, and thriling to behold. It’s scenes and moments like these – the film’s flights, reveries, and standalone images — that make Blonde a film worth watching. Excelling at these in a way it can’t seem to manage or even want to with psychology, Dominik seems best when dealing with the fragility — however troublingly gendered that conception — of Marilyn/Norma’s flickering, often faltering image. Throughout (and maybe to his credit), he seems a bigger believer in “the image” than “the real.”
Were Dominik free to do just that, wheeling through abstract meditations on a tumultuous public-private life and focusing on variously charged surfaces, Blonde would likely soar. But across its running time, Blonde’s script and structure often feel by-the-numbers when considered beside the vitality of its images and performance. With drably requisite cameos (JFK) and scenes (the story behind the famous skirt shot) featuring and dragging the film down, no amount of editorial and visual tinkering can exactly liberate Blonde from the obligations and easy logics of Netflix’s expectations for a biopic production like this. But for those willing to wait, there’s a good bit here — and it looks better in the end than most anything you could put it next to.