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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Blonde // Film Review

“I am happy. I’ve been happy all my life.”

The day that Blonde drops on Netflix is a day I intend to spend as far from the Internet as possible.

Andrew Dominik’s near-three hour epic is not a biopic so much as a searing and miserable retelling of the life of Marilyn Monroe as one of the major tragic figures of 20th century Americana. Tearing into the American Dream and its glamourous ideals with both hands, Blonde can be cruel and unforgiving, but at the same time it's never sadistic. One gets the sense that it desperately wants its protagonist to feel the happiness she wears like a mask, but whenever it comes close, history gets in the way.

Blonde stars Ana De Armas as Norma Jean Baker, the woman who took the stage name of Marilyn and went through a breathless rise and fall through the Hollywood studio system in barely a dozen years. De Armas is impeccable in the role, nailing the voice and mannerisms of one of the most iconic stars in history, while still making entirely clear that Marilyn is a performance put on by Norma Jean, to be switched on and off when needed. It’s a layered, tightwire effort, particularly in a film as long as this one where every scene features her prominently. As if to demonstrate her immense star power, there is scarcely a shot in the film where she doesn’t at least partially feature.

Beyond De Armas’ performance, the key criticisms of Blonde look more at Dominik’s apparent obsession with the victimisation of Marilyn Monroe, as the film does go to some lengths to diminish her legacy into a tragedy of abuse. Without question dhis argument certainly have a place; as a biography, the film packs all of Marilyn's pain, and none of her power.

But as discussed, Blonde isn’t quite a biopic. It’s based on an eponymous novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a fictionalised take on Marilyn’s life which weaves its tale through the facts of her history, never making a change that might contradict her true timeline. It's the story of a woman raised as an orphan because her mum wanted nothing to do with her, sold on the promise that her father was an old movie star, and accompanied at every step by men who position themselves above her. The psychological toll of such a life speaks for itself, and it’s the sort of crushing reality that has a place amongst the glamour and glory of starlet culture.

More than that though, the film is hyperfixated on Norma Jean's battle for agency. Over her lifetime, she makes countless efforts to combat the facts of her reality. Key scenes see her deducing the pay of her co-stars over the phone, arguing with directors over making her the butt of the joke and, crucially, her multiple attempts to have a child she can call her own (the man involved in each pregnancy is largely irrelevant - Marilyn barely spares them a though and the film does much the same). Her every action is a battle for self-worth, and there are several occasions where she would succeed if not for the cruel and terrible truth of history, making its entrance at all the wrong moments in what could otherwise have been the perfect fairy tale.

Blonde is pessimistic film, bordering on nihilistic. It does view the life and fate of Norma Jean Baker as a tale with any real positives that stand the test of time, and it reflects poorly on almost every man and woman with a part to play in her life. In spite of its cynicism, the film does work, largely because Dominik and De Armas bring into the script just enough hope, levity and relief to let Norma Jean shine through the mask of Marilyn. Blonde is not a tribute to a movie star, in all of her empowered glory, but a condemnation of an era that glossed and dyed over every fault. Everyone prefers blondes, after all.

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival 2022.


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