I have seen worse movies than Blonde this year, but I'm not sure I have seen any I have disliked more. Blonde is a strange beast – it's a Marilyn Monroe biopic, except it's fictional, and avoids deifying its subject in the way some other biopics do. In a strange way, it deserves some credit for that – stories are more interesting when the heroes are flawed, and biopics should be no different. But Blonde goes beyond being a warts and all tale and moves into active and often violent contempt for its subject. As a huge fan of both Monroe and de Armas, Blonde feels like a cruel joke.
Andrew Dominik has said that he doesn't believe people watch Marilyn Monroe movies, which is a little disheartening for a director of a biopic of her life to say, not to mention untrue. Monroe is known more for her star power, and while everyone on the street could recognise her face, few could name more than two or three flicks. But Monroe has a highly celebrated body of work – yet Dominik's attitude that nobody cares for her career shines through. We see her read for Don't Bother to Knock (a cult favourite) and then only get the job because she has a nice ass. This audition, which the movie suggests Monroe passes entirely because of her figure, is the longest we see of any acting from Monroe at all. Later when she returns to acting class and meets Arthur Miller, we see Monroe start to speak, then cut to the applause and Miller's reaction – Monroe is only ever worthy in this movie when men say she is, and Andrew Dominik's voice is the loudest of all.
Niagra is just a series of images of Monroe looking sensual – her darkly noir portrayal of a femme fatale gets zero screen time. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is just applause and then Monroe whispering to herself about how awful she is for aborting her baby. The Seven Year Itch, my favourite comedy turn from her, is just 'the dress scene', which itself is merely a catalyst for Joe DiMaggio beating her while she wails helplessly. In another scene where he beats her, she helplessly bleats "Daddy!" at him and, for some reason, is sat around the house with no shirt on. Some Like it Hot, which (you'd never know it) is apparently Dominik's own favourite, does not show any sign of Monroe putting in her career-best performance, but instead sees her drugged up on barbiturates screaming constantly at director Billy Wilder while looking and acting like a mess.
Ahh, you might argue, but Monroe was a nightmare on the set of Some Like it Hot! Sure, I've read the stories. She wasn't in a good place. I can't imagine she was fun to work with. But why is this section so loyal to the truth, when others are so fanciful with fiction? There's zero evidence Monroe ever had an abortion, and she had two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, not just one. Arthur Miller was also far colder to her than Blonde makes him seem – in fact, her three failed pregnancies were all put down to the stress being married to Miller placed on her. There's also no evidence that Monroe was raped early in her career, or that she ever slept with anyone to get any of her roles – and yet this is how Blonde frames Monroe's success. She is a pretty blonde with a nice ass who fucked her way to the top, then heartlessly killed her baby in order to stay there.
It's an obnoxiously foul portrayal of Monroe, and I would advise all Monroe fans to avoid it. I hoped for a somewhat dark portrayal of her life – Monroe was not a squeaky clean individual and a movie about her could not be either. But using the shield of 'it's fiction' while using real archive footage of Monroe feels repellent. Monroe's relationship with DiMaggio was more layered than Blonde suggests, and with Miller it was crueller. With Kennedy, there was more to it than her flying across the country while high to give him a blowjob. And, although you'd barely know it from watching Blonde, she was also one of the most magnetic people ever to grace the silver screen.
In a way, Blonde hurts twice as much. While I don't admire Ana de Armas quite as much as I do Monroe, she is one of my favourite stars working today. In some ways, she's the perfect choice for Monroe – both are sex symbols whose acting ability is often overlooked as a result. That de Armas herself has such a strong accent that she never quite sheds for Blonde was always going to be a bit of a dealbreaker, but at least with a decent script she could have made it work. There's a great performance hidden in here, but Dominik pushes de Armas too far too often and it becomes ragingly melodramatic and loses its layers. Much like Monroe herself, it's Don't Bother to Knock where de Armas shows what she can do, but the movie is disinterested.
Dominik cast de Armas off the back of Knock Knock, which should have been a warning sign. Knock Knock, de Armas' first English-language feature, is an erotic thriller where de Armas spends most of the time topless, and in her most famous scene ties a man up then simulates sex with him while dressed in his underage daughter's school uniform. It's good at what it sets out to be, and very dark, but far from de Armas' best work. Her tragic portrayal of falling in love while not being alive in Blade Runner 2049 is far closer to Monroe, not to mention an all-around better performance. As both Joi and Monroe, de Armas has to give humanity to an object created entirely to be looked at and sexualised, and has to find a well of heart when the world around her does not allow for it. The Night Clerk and Exposed both feel like better indications too – but it's the movie where she's naked and has daddy issues that sealed the deal, which feels indicative of what Dominik thinks of his subject.
Blonde is not only a difficult movie to recommend, but also an incredibly complex one. Despite its tour through Monroe's life, clever use of archive footage, and incredible imagery, it's so clearly not for Monroe fans. And despite de Armas giving the movie more layers than it deserves and looking sparkling in every scene, she's pushed to extremes in ways that make her performance ridiculous at no fault of her own, meaning it's not one for her fans either. If you like them both, it's a double whammy. But if you hate women, boy do I have a movie for you!
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