Ana De Armas’ NC-17 Marilyn Monroe Biopic ‘Blonde’ Premieres At TIFF: Review

For those who have long complained that too many biopics are staid and formulaic—we see a familiar rise, the expected fall (or bobble), and then some kind of warmly summative ending—the director Andrew Dominiklike Todd Haynes and others before him, has come up with a different approach. His adaptation of blondethe popular novel by Joyce Carol Oates that presents a version of the life of Marilyn Monroe, is a psychological portrait less concerned with reciting facts than illustrating a grand and troubling phenomenon.

It’s been nearly sixty years since Monroe died as the result of an overdose of pills at age 36, and in those many decades since, countless more idols have burned bright and then been laid low, reduced to rubble under the pressures of fame and ambition. Dominik’s film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday, is a consideration of all of those narratives, with Monroe as the stand-in for Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohanand too many others.

At least that’s how I’m choosing to read the film. blonde is boldly and complexly mounted, but that technique—so brazenly applied by Dominik—could actually be in service of something far simpler, and more base. blonde is a film partly about exploitation that might be exploitative itself. If the film is aware of that meta function, then there’s something interesting happening in it. If not, and Dominik thinks he is genuinely ennobling Monroe and expressing some kind of radical pity for her, then blonde is a little perverse.

The film is a brutal sit, a nearly three-hour-long descent down the misery rabbit hole with Monroe, as she goes from abused and neglected child to nascent star struggling to assert herself. blonde certainly has an affection for this version of her: in Dominik’s eyes she is a weirdo artist, a clever and experimental mind who was thwarted by things beyond her control. (Mental health and men, mostly.) It’s nice seeing Monroe’s legacy regarded this way, a respect for her creativity and intelligence, her kindness too, rather than a mere dissection of her beauty and public image.

But as much as Dominik appreciates Monroe on those merits, he eventually puts her through a nightmarish ordeal leading to her death. That is probably somewhat reflective of what really happened in her life, but it’s harrowing and relentless (and, eventually, tiresome) on film. Therein might lie the film’s meta dimension: even its fond, compassionate consideration of Monroe can’t help but eventually turn that attention and ardor into something destructive. Is Dominik’s observation dela, and ours too, however well intended, hastening her collapse?

And what of the actress playing her? Ana de Armas can’t do much to conceal her Cuban accent as she approximates Monroe’s breathy melodiousness, but maybe that’s part of the point of casting her. (Beyond an occasionally uncanny resemblance to the real deal.) This is a kind of crucible for de Armas, too, one also subjected to the weight of our attention. So it makes sense that some of the actor should remain, even as she dives deep into her act of transformation. De Armas is fiercely, almost scarily committed to the role, maintaining high and focused energy through every torrent of tears and screams and traumas. We don’t necessarily get to know the fullness of Monroe; the movie offers precious little of her dela at work, or in her social element. It’s pretty much all pain, all the time. But in rendering that so potently, from Armas fulfills the mission of Dominik’s film, crafting a vivid and frightening picture of the madness of fame.

Dominik stages that fever in ever-shifting collage. Sometimes the film is in black and white, other times in rich color. The aspect ratio changes from time to time, sound cuts in and out. There isn’t any discernible pattern to the film’s switches—I thought for a while that maybe one color palette was meant to indicate when the private, “real” Monroe, familiarly known as Norma, was taking focus, rather than the practiced Marilyn persona , but that doesn’t really sync up in the film. No, from a viewing perspective, Dominik’s aesthetic choices feel pretty arbitrary. They’re effective nonetheless; the movie has an hypnotic quality, even when it’s agitating.

Inasmuch as it has a structure, blonde unfolds episodically as Monroe is separated from her mother, starts her career, and falls in with various men. The movie (and presumably Oates’s novel) invents a three-way romance with Monroe, Charles Chaplin, Jr. (Xavier Samuel), and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), which is the movie at its most curiously seductive. Two of Monroe’s current husbands are present, too; Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) is an abusive simpleton who can’t abide Monroe’s free-spirited artistry, while Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) is affectionate if detached.

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