“Blonde” is a bleak, exhausting vehicle for actor de Armas’s career-best

“Blonde,” a fictionalized account of the inner life of American bombshell Marilyn Monroe, was released on Netflix September 2022. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 2000 novel of the same name, the film follows Norma Jeane Baker and her destructive relationship with the persona of Marilyn Monroe through the various hardships, scandals and tragedies she endured in 1950s and 60s Hollywood. Despite their resemblance to real accounts of Baker’s experience, Oates’s novel and this adaptation from director Andrew Dominik are fictitious.

“Blonde” can be described in several ways — bold, daring, brave and revealing, but also bleak, exhausting, cruel and exploitative. The first majorly distributed film to receive a rating of NC-17 from the MPA in over 25 years, “Blonde” does not shy from the intimate or insidious details of Baker’s career. In the eyes of the public, Marilyn Monroe was an object before she was a person — a mascot for adult calendars or the covers of beauty magazines.

Regarding the character, all Baker seeks is human connection, most immediately in a father figure but also through companionship and motherhood. Her desires, of course, clash with Monroe, a figure inherently bereft of meaningful connection. This clash creates a cycle of hopelessness for Baker — one that Dominik belabors to a fault — as the line between her personal and professional lives blurs.

Scene after scene of the nearly three-hour film portrays Baker in a state of utter despair. So rarely does the audience catch a moment of happiness that when those moments do happen, they are imbued with the expectation that something awful will transpire sooner or later, almost as if Baker deserves the despair she endures. A ridiculous thought, admittedly, but one that the writing and direction of Dominik plainly propose.

In this respect, “Blonde” is exploitative where it thinks itself subtle or sophisticated. The direction and editing suggest objective distance from the subject matter but actually pass judgment rather than unbiased portrayal.

In plain terms, the sex scenes are shot like pornography. Therefore, they portray Baker, ironically, like the sex symbol she clashes with so intensely. There is no distance from the subject matter nor respect for Baker. Perhaps this reversal was Dominik’s intention. If so, it is a strange one.

The editing itself is often jarring and seemingly nonsensical. The film jumps between color and black-and-white scenes ad nauseum, with no discernable thematic reason as to why. Likewise, the narrative, though linear, is often relayed in a confusing onslaught of dreamlike scenes with no apparent connection. It is no wonder, then, that Dominik described the film as an “avalanche of images and events,” a trait he mentioned as a strength but is taken as a weakness.

This “avalanche” also hinders Dominik’s writing. Oates’s novel aside, “Blonde” as a film contains little dialogue. What dialogue there is, however, is almost always unnatural. Whether it is plainly beating the viewer over the head with its message or attempting poeticism with awkward phrasing and archaic diction, not much of it is good.

There is some good in “Blonde,” to be sure. Ana de Armas delivers a singular performance as the tortured Baker, not only resembling her visually but also nailing her mannerisms and disposition. The person of Baker and the personality of Monroe come alive under her careful and captivating portrayal.

Adrien Brody, credited simply as The Playwright, brings a gripping performance as Baker’s third husband Arthur Miller, a pensive writer looking for the perfect actor to play one of his characters in an upcoming production. Brody, a veteran actor known for portraying meek and reserved characters, succeeded again as Miller.

It is a shame that these masters of their craft must populate the scenes of a largely inept and ultimately mediocre film. While fictitious, “Blonde” is disrespectful to the real Norma Jeane Baker, not because of its outright depiction of her — which is itself problematic — but because of its conclusively bleak, meandering and pretentious construction. 2.5/5