Blonde review – Norma Jeane and Ana deserve much much better

Marilyn Monroe is an icon, there’s no two ways about it. The image of her stood above a ventilation grate, her long white dress billowing is as iconic an image as you’ll get. it’s up there with those lads enjoying lunch on a steel beam, it’s up there with images of the Twin Towers coming down. So naturally a Hollywood icon will forever be of interest to Hollywood. Andrew Dominik’s new film has decided not to take the truth as it’s jumping off point but a fictional story cooked by up Joyce Carol Oates.

Blonde takes a… questionable look at the life of Norma Jeane Mortensen, who for her own sanity takes on the persona of Marilyn Monroe and in the process becomes an icon.

Dominik has spoken about being more interested in images and emotion than truth, and that makes sense since the film is, from the off, pure fantasy. Like Spencer before it, this appears to be a film content to play into all the insidious lies that hate rags peddled when the woman was alive. It’s a mighty near three hour run time, punctuated by long listless voiceover to montages of sperm fertilising eggs, or waterfalls over three-ways.

By the twenty minute mark you’ve already witnessed poor Norma Jeane beaten, half drowned and raped before we even learn of why she wants to act – she has no dad, if you’re wondering. Dominik’s film is malicious in how it reduces a woman who fought the studio system, stood up for her black contemporaries and fought injustice to a snivelling wreck, who enters rooms to ask for her daddy only to get either shagged or knocked about – or both.

Admittedly the cinematography – playing with colour and black and white along with aspect ratios to emphasise different moods and emotions – is gorgeous, and helped by a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score that is mesmerising and haunting. Both of which are aided by a fully committed performance by Ana de Armas, naked in every sense, it’s a majestic turn and shows she’s one of the biggest talents working.

But, the film cannot escape the exploitation. The film reduces everyone to the most basic footnotes. Her mother, clearly plagued by mental illness is a shouty abuser, only underlined by the full commitment of Julianne Nicholson. John DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) is nothing but a wannabe gangster heavy, Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) a blow hard pretentious writer. Charlie Chaplin Jr and Edward G. Robinson Jr are shown as two horny frat boys, half drunk all the time. These may all be true, but if people are only one thing then Marilyn is just a sobbing woman cowering in the corner of a room, often without clothes on.

Ana de Armas in Blonde

All of this is to say, it’s at best questionable, and at worst further exploitation of a woman plagued by a world that doesn’t have much feeling for her, to make a film so devoid of empathy. De Armas is what keeps the film afloat with her powerful turn, juxtaposing Norma and Marilyn as two different identities, one her true self, the other a persona to protect herself from the hardships she endures. Like Kristen Stewart as Diana, this is a film that lives purely because of it’s lead.

Her scenes with Toby Huss as her personal make-up artist Whitey are the best, someone who has no designs on her other than to be her friend. They have a natural friendly chemistry that is thoroughly enjoyable and the only times we get to enjoy Norma as someone beyond an object. 

The film appears to exist purely to generate controversy, often saying dead people are rapists and abusers in full knowledge the truth will never fully come out, and saying nothing new about Marilyn Monroe except that she was horrifically abused – things we already know.

For people who have a stomach to endure watching someone’s life continually fall apart it might be better to rewatch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me where the entertainment can be gleamed from fiction rather than exploiting an already sad story with more abuse. Both Norma Jean and Ana deserve much much better.

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Paul Klein

Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.