Cert – 18, Run-time – 2 hours 46 minutes, Director – Andrew Dominik
As Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) experiences a fast-track rise through Hollywood fame her life merges with her screen persona of Marilyn Monroe, both are taken advantage of and abused throughout lives of tragedy.
For those going into Blonde expecting a Marilyn Monroe biopic you’re very likely to be disappointed. However, if you go in expecting an exploitation film with Marilyn Monroe as the main character, perhaps the better initial mindset to have, you’re also not going to be completely catered to throughout the film’s nearly three hour run-time. However, it’s this tone and style which writer-director Andrew Dominik’s film largely leans towards in the opening 20-30 minutes. We see the early childhood of Norma Jeane Mortensen (Lily Fisher), spent with her mentally unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson) before being left at an orphanage by a neighbour. If Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis threw all the glitz, glamour and spinning cameras in the opening stages, Blonde sets a heavy tone of tragedy and dark despair in its opening stages.
It feels slightly odd going from seeing a young child crying “I’m not an orphan” to an instant cut into a montage of now grown-up Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) beginning to take the form of Marilyn Monroe in a series of pin-up photo shoots. The film is brief with a number of its moments. Feeling like a set of montage-like sets of sequences its such moments which focus most on the hardship of Monroe as she hurtles into higher and higher levels of fame. Only to be met with further abuse from key studio figures and multiple tragedies in her personal life, from rocky marriages to unwanted abortions and miscarriages. There’s no denying that this certainly isn’t an easy watch at times, perhaps unhelped by the distance that there seems to be from Domink to his subject.
A subject who becomes split in her own life. Trying her best to live her own life and not be taken over by the idealised persona of Marilyn, the person who everybody loves and yet is subject to much of the hurt and suffering within her career. It feels at times as if she’d give anything to drop her ‘movie-star lifestyle’ (“I want to begin again from zero. I want to live in another world, away from Hollywood”) for a quiet family life, or perhaps a stage career. It’s during the quieter scenes which focus on Monroe verbalising her feelings, particularly in a handful of monologues and auditions, as she tries to deal with living almost two lives and the pain which comes with each of them that the film perhaps works best. It continues to lean away from a mainstream feeling and there’s some interest to be found in it, largely thanks to de Armas’ performance – even if every now and then you do still see her coming through (it’s a hard task to try and capture Marilyn Monroe, especially in a film such as this, after all; but she still gives a good turn regardless).
As we travel through the years and trials of the central figure’s life the visual style occasionally changes to match a particularly filmic look. While largely in black and white we occasionally get glimpses of colour, alongside a changing aspect ratio. It’s a relatively unintrusive set of decisions which generally help to push the visual style and solidify the fact that the cinematography by Chayse Irvin throughout the film is rather striking.
Yet, when it comes to the film as a whole and the way in which it presents itself. It may change between Marilyn Monroe exploitation film and arthouse biopic, and it certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s something interesting here. It chooses not to focus on most of the progressive elements of Monroe’s life and career and instead focuses on many of the tragedies. With this in mind it’s easy to understand why so many haven’t got on with the film, or have been rather mixed with it, It’s not a mainstream biopic and seems very much aware of it.
As it shifts away from it’s ‘we’re going to make this NC-17’ stylings and actually makes its film (albeit still with NC-17 elements) something else begins to emerge. An interesting film (although certainly not one to be taken as gospel when it comes to Monroe’s life as a whole) which may take some adjusting to properly engage with. It may not be completely successful in everything it wants to depict, and will likely continue to be divisive. But for what it does provide it’s more interesting from a filmmaking perspective and as the piece of work that it is than as a Marilyn Monroe biopic – something spoken quite loudly in its overall style and nature.
Perhaps the feeling of distance between Dominik and his subject heightens the occasional exploitation feel, but it also boosts the idea that this isn’t quite a full biopic. Interesting from a filmmaking perspective over anything else, there’s a strong visual style and central performance from de Armas, but it’s certainly going to be highly divisive.