Here’s a cocktail for you — let’s call it the “Blonde.” Start with a base of biographical fiction, add three parts mid-century photography, a heavy dash of bitters, a wash of bad taste and top with a Lynchian float. You’ll have something that kicks hard, if leaving you somewhat worse for wear once the intoxicants run their course.
And to push this analogy further than needed (hey, “Blonde” is a film of excess), director Andrew Dominik’s long-awaited Marilyn Monroe biopic is somehow less about the actress and more about his own showmanship. Think of Dominik as a flair bartender.
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival, “Blonde” holds stardom to the light and finds nothing but an unending nightmare. If technically an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, the film uses that source as a launch pad, a framework on which to pin countless other inspirations, most of them visual.
Speaking in breathy tones where her every line comes pitched between a sigh and a whisper, Ana de Armas’ Marilyn is as much subject of the film as its object — an animating figure breathing life into a non-stop slideshow of iconic images recreated in painstaking detail. That is, until it becomes something wholly different.
An early scene sets the stage. We find 7-year-old Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) living in precarity with her troubled single-mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson, going full no-wire-hangers). Dad is not in the picture; except, he is in the picture, in the framed headshot of an unnamed matinée idol (styled to look like Clark Gable, though “Blonde” makes no mention of the film he and Monroe would eventually make) that hangs on the wall. Norma Jeane looks up at the man she is told cannot recognize her, lest he wreck his career. The man in the image looks back — and then he starts to speak.
As if to reclaim the term “moving pictures,” Dominik stages much of the action in tableaus that recreate iconic photos from Bert Stern, Milton Greene and Richard Avedon, among many more. The message is less “this is Monroe as you’ve never seen” than “this is how you’ve always seen her,” just body-swapped with de Armas (and with Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody as, respectively, husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller) and with Monroe’s demons and darkness allowed to creep into the frame as well.
Still, the aesthetic is more than just recreations. Dominik uses heightened and figurative visual language right from the start, depicting Glady’s mental illness as an external force, a fiery blaze surrounding the mother and daughter that no one else can see. When those flames consume her, when Gladys tries to harm her young daughter, Norma Jeane emerges unscathed and forever marked. For “Blonde” sees the actress as a woman split in two: On one side, there’s Marilyn — the bombshell, the image printed on billboards, the “piece of meat” as DiMaggio artfully puts it — and on the other end there’s Norma Jeane, a childlike woman stuck in her 7-year-old self.
The film holds that fixed psychological binary as it follows a path to stardom paved with casting-couch degradations and personal sacrifice. Switching on a dime between deep black-and-white and popping Technicolor, Dominik’s style is both visually playful and emotionally dour; the filmmaker decries the dangers of stardom with one side of his mouth and sings about the magic of the movies with the other.
Now, that’s not inherently a fault; if anything, it could make for interesting tension. Only there is little tension or subtext to be found; Monroe calls every man in her life Daddy, in case you didn’t catch on. On a thematic level, the film never really goes past the old “child-in-the-body-of-a-woman” set-up, or the idea that film stardom, especially in this highest of echelons, requires a degree of personal dissociation that can drive even the most anchored of us to madness.
A scene set at the world premiere of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” crystallizes the project’s highs and lows. Dominik plays his two visual schemes off one another to brilliant effect, cutting between the screen — which finds de Armas singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a note-perfect recreation of the 1953 musical — and the room, which is bathed in a hellfire glow so frightening that it would have killed the theatrical model then and there had it not been, you know, a poetic interpretation of an interior state. And then, from her seat, Norma Jeane speaks to the Marilyn onscreen. “That isn’t me,” she says, surprised. “For this you killed your baby?”
About that: If “Blonde” breaks little new ground in story and theme, it more than makes up the difference in audacity. Because Dominik goes there in oh so many ways, letting good taste fly in the wind as he finds a rather unconventional place for his camera in (several!) scenes of forced abortion and depicting a rendezvous between Monroe and JFK (lookalike Caspar Phillipson, who played the same role in “Jackie”) that leaves little doubt as to the transactional nature of this relationship, while more than earning the film’s NC-17 rating. (Thank heaven for Netflix, all you curious teens.)
There’s also the question of a talking fetus, but listen, this review is already running long, and in any case, all are products of Dominik’s larger goal: To use both camp and shock in order to shatter an ornately designed window into the past.
That extremely one-sided sexual encounter just about does the trick, giving Dominik the license to play in his own sandbox as the film moves towards the actress’ final years. Dropping the old-photo-made-new approach, Dominik doesn’t stop showing his homework, staging another film premiere as a scene right out of “Eraserhead” and asking composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to deliver what could best be described as Angelo Badalamenti B-sides in order to make clear connections to that other Doomed Blonde, Laura Palmer.
Of course, Dominik is more than just a pastiche artist, and his nods to David Lynch might also be one director paying tribute to another, a wink of recognition that the whole finding-the-darkness-hiding-in-mid-century-America iconography approach has a clear granddad.
Whatever the case, he need not have bothered, because “Blonde” absolutely finds its own surest footing as Marilyn loses hers. Swapping the styles of others for his own voice, Dominik recounts the actress’ tragic final years in poetry rather than prose, letting those early flames consume the film whole. As it moves into a surrealist flow, the closing act follows a kind of nightmare logic, seeing backgrounds subtly shift and figures emerge out of nowhere only to return just as fast.
Once more, the filmmaker’s level of formal control is exemplary and precise, and his lead actress game for whatever comes her way. Only one can’t shake the feeling that all of it runs against the film’s ostensible message, that is another case of Monroe’s agency taken from her. Ultimately a valentine to itself, “Blonde” doesn’t liberate Norma Jeane or give Marilyn back her image. It just sticks them in another frame for another’s glory.
“Blonde” opens in US theaters September 16 and premieres on Netflix September 28.