The human mind is a fragile thing.
For as much as we want to believe that we are capable of handling anything that life throws our way, it’s the trauma and mental anguish that goes untreated that often leads to our demise.
This is very much at the core of writer/director Andrew Dominik’s latest film, an avant-garde fever dream odyssey that follows no rigid plot structure nor overly glamorizes or demonizes its protagonist.
Based on the fictional novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde isn’t a traditional biopic, although it loosely follows the life of Norma Jean Mortenson, better known to the world as film star and pop culture icon Marilyn Monroe.
Viewers see Marilyn’s childhood, her rise to stardom and relationships, but what’s most important to Dominik is the emotional toll that Marilyn’s journey takes on her and how the inner conflict between Marilyn the star and Norma Jean the real person comes to affect the tragic deterioration of her mental health.
In a lot of ways, Blonde is very reminiscent of Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, an equally manic psychological drama from 2021 focusing on the stress and mental anguish of fame through the eyes of Princess Diana, although Larrain has a clearer narrative structure to his film and Dominik widens his gaze to a more ethereal, scattershot approach to hit the highlights of a much longer period.
Up-and-coming actress Ana de Armas astonishes as Marilyn in a performance that’s elegant when it needs to be but constantly in a state of unease and brittle to the point of cracking. It’s clear to see the pain hidden with Marilyn’s eyes as de Armas radiates the hurt while simultaneously attempting to hide it behind a bubbly demeanor and infectious smile that captivates the hearts of millions.
Dominik and de Armas aren’t necessarily interested in capturing who Marilyn was from a biographical perspective, more examining larger themes, and an overwhelming sense of longing for the father she never knew and the mother taken from her by mental illness.
Her performance is constantly on a razor’s edge and de Armas brings out the best in a less nuanced role but doesn’t make Monroe a caricature.
A lot can be said of the sexuality within Blonde given the film’s NC-17 rating. While it’s true that de Armas spends a considerable amount of time topless, this is more an effect of her fragility in emotional and mental state rather than pure exploitation on Dominik’s part as a director.
The brutality of two specific scenes where Marilyn is essentially raped are less demonstrative in their sexuality but feel exceptionally explicit given the helplessness Marilyn feels in each scene and help to further the deterioration of Marilyn’s state of mind.
Much of the supporting cast floats in and out of Blonde while the focus remains almost exclusively on de Armas.
Blonde astonishes with its picturesque, complex cinematography from director of photography Chayse Irvin, who with Dominik essentially recreates iconic Monroe still photographs as full layered scenes that float effortlessly between an assortment of aspect ratios as well as in and out of color.
But the consistency in quality of filmmaking on a frame-to-frame basis never wavers. Blonde is an exceptionally stunning film regardless of what era or visual approach Dominik and his production team choose for any given moment and viewers are always firmly planted in Marilyn’s world visually.
For a film that runs at nearly three hours, it’s exceptionally well edited – especially transitioning from scene to scene in combination with the visual elements – and although the audience will easily feel the totality of the run time, it’s hard to look away from de Armas’s singular performance.
There aren’t really any Oscar prospects for Blonde despite its limited theatrical release. The film’s NC-17 rating combined with other more mainstream options on Netflix’s slate will make it unlikely that this controversial drama will make the shortlist for even the most liberal of awards voters despite deserving acclaim in lead actress, cinematography, and score.
Blonde is a film for few very forgiving cinephiles as many audiences will scorn Monroe’s depiction although de Armas gives the most compelling performance as Marilyn. It’s a more captivating movie on the big screen than it will likely be on Netflix, but the ease of access should broaden the range of viewers who can compartmentalize Blonde into more manageable chunks.