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‘Blonde’ Is All Bad Vibes

Andrew Dominik’s bludgeoning Marilyn Monroe biopic has all the signs of a passion project, but none of the rewards

Netflix/Ringer illustration

“Who knows what to think about Marilyn Monroe or about those who turn her sickness into metaphor?” Pauline Kael wrote in 1973. “I wish they’d let her die.”

Kael was reviewing Norman Mailer’s controversial bestseller Marilyn: A Biography, a massive, glossy book of photographs of the late star supplemented with a wild, rambling essay that theorized, among other things, that Monroe had been murdered by the FBI as a cover-up for her affairs with Jack and Robert Kennedy. Mailer ended up admitting he made that stuff up because he needed the money; in a fugue of arrogance and desperation, he used the project to write almost as much about himself as his subject. In the introduction, he proudly describes his project as “a species of novel ready to play by the rules of biography,” but as Kael’s pan suggests, the formulation was inside out. Marilyn is a biography that plays by the rules of fiction, which is to say that it follows no rules at all. “This brilliant book,” Kael concluded, “gives off bad vibes … neither the world nor Marilyn Monroe should be seen in Norman Mailer’s image.”

As the ’70s wore on and the celebrity-industrial complex ramped up, plenty of other artists tried to remake Monroe in their image, from the Elton John of “Candle in the Wind” to Andy Warhol’s pop art silk screens. In his berserk rock opera Tommy, Ken Russell dragged out a massive, fiberglass statue of Monroe in her upskirt Seven Year Itch pose, only to have Roger Daltrey’s pinball wizard accidentally smash it: an ambiguous blow against the commodification of superstardom. By 1984, Madonna was literally remaking herself as Marilyn in the video for “Material Girl,” cleverly revising the can’t-buy-me love subtext of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for an acquisitive, Reagan-era zeitgeist. Where John’s piano-man obituary was so drippily sentimental that it could have been about anybody (hence its recycling in 1997 for the death of Princess Diana), Madonna’s cosplay came from a place of evident blonds-have-more-fun solidarity and admiration. The era’s sharpest evocation of the Monroe persona, though, came in Nicolas Roeg’s beguiling 1985 comedy Insignificance, a heady, conceptual theatrical adaptation featuring Theresa Russell as a nameless, deceptively naive woman called simply The Actress. Like most of Roeg’s output, Insignificance is a strange film, but it’s one with a healthy respect for Monroe’s intelligence and resourcefulness: The scene where Russell breathily (and convincingly) explains the theory of relativity to an Einstein stand-in using toy trains, balloons, and a flashlight is affectionate, endearing, and surprising. It shows her holding her own in a way none of those crocodile-tear-stained posthumous tributes did.

Published in 2000, Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde borrowed (or stole) Insignificance’s no-proper-names conceit and integrated it into a formidable array of literary and rhetorical tricks. Like Mailer’s tome, Oates’s 700-page doorstop represented yet another Great American Writer’s attempt to wrestle with—and profit from—Monroe’s legacy, as well as to show off her own virtuoso prose. Similarly flouting the rules of biography and working with an extra 30 years’ worth of hindsight, Oates inflated Monroe into a tragic, emblematic figure of 20th-century femininity: a hapless, helpless victim used and abused by her own illusions, and those of millions of others as well. In swapping out Mailer’s disingenuous chivalry for violent, picaresque melodrama, Oates not only turned her heroine’s sickness into metaphor but reveled in it. In interviews, the author said that she saw Monroe as her version of the Great White Whale, which would make Oates herself Ahab—a crazed, kamikaze hunter stalking dangerous game until they both went down together.

Andrew Dominik’s film adaptation of Blonde, which stars Ana de Armas as Monroe, hews relatively closely to Oates’s text, meaning it’s faithful to her particular strain of bad faith. Drawing on and selectively hyperbolizing the historical record—and eliding any moments that might interrupt its highlight-reel-slash-atrocity-exhibition structure—it’s a no-holds-barred exercise in unpleasantness featuring enough graphic scenes of sexualized violence to earn an NC-17 rating. The film opens with the young Norma Jeane Baker as a girl physically and psychologically terrorized by her mother, who tells her that she’s the illegitimate daughter of a famous movie star who’ll one day return to claim her; gazing obsessively at the man’s photo, Norma (Lily Fisher) wonders whether she somehow drove him away. The idea that Monroe lived the rest of her life in thrall to this dashing absentee father pervades the film’s ensuing inventory of her personal and romantic relationships. A few years out of the orphanage where she was deposited following her mother’s mental breakdown, Norma carouses unrepentantly with the adult sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, forming a tabloid-friendly throuple raising fingers to the Old Hollywood establishment. After gaining traction as a pin-up model, she transforms into the platinum-blond Marilyn as a way to leave her sadness behind, only to find that it follows her and deepens in the hairline fractures of her new sexpot persona. Courted by A-listers of all kinds and insecure about her acting talent, Marilyn proves unable to reconcile her modest yet all-consuming desire to be loved with the demands of fame. Wracked with grief over a series of failed pregnancies—including one thwarted by her own hand—she falls, swiftly and almost gratefully, into a haze of barbiturates and self-loathing, down a bottomless abyss that gazes back at her every time she looks at a mirror or movie screen.

Downward spirals are irresistible to filmmakers looking to flex their aesthetic muscles, and Blonde, which exists somewhere between period-piece meticulousness and impressionism, is awash in spectacular displays of technique. Nearly every passage features some kind of warped perspective or augmented soundscape; throughout, there are relentless, Oliver Stoned shifts in framing and cinematographic format, from ripe color to drab black-and-white and back again. Grim, magic-realist touches abound: The opening sequence, set in 1933, unfolds in the midst of a fire in the Hollywood Hills that draws Norma Jeane’s mother (Julianne Nicholson) toward it like a moth to the flame, terrified daughter in tow. The blaze heralds an ingenue story coated in ashes, an apocalyptic inferno as the showbiz primal scene. Later, the newly platinum actress’s audition for a role in the B-movie thriller Don’t Bother to Knock transforms, Mulholland Drive–style, into an intimate, close-up psychodrama. As Marilyn exits the studio, we iris in on her rear end in leering, synchronous complicity with the sexist executives who can’t decide whether they’re embarrassed, turned on, or repulsed by what they’ve just seen. It’s the same sleazy ambiguity that’s slathered all over Blonde’s immaculately composed frames like a layer of slime.

Blonde doesn’t lack for startling, memorable images—to echo Kael’s take on Mailer, it’s a brilliant movie that gives off bad vibes. Except its brilliance is mostly false, or else borrowed by a filmmaker who’s chasing the work of far greater auteurs en route to his own private dead end. The New Zealand–born Dominik is typically enthralled by two-fisted masculine themes: He’s so far specialized in petty criminals (Chopper) and noble outlaws (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford); mercenary hitmen (Killing Them Softly) and haunted balladeers like his pal (and longtime composer/documentary subject) Nick Cave. There are critics who’d claim the commercially DOA Jesse James as one of the great, underrated films of the 2000s, and its Roger Deakins–shot Western landscapes have real, spectral beauty. Elsewhere, as one of the few Obama-era thrillers to skewer politics on both sides of the aisle—“America is not a country, it’s a business,” Brad Pitt’s late-capitalist assassin proclaims—Killing Them Softly provoked exactly the sort of harsh responses it was asking for. And in the second season of Mindhunter, Dominik did an excellent job in his two episodes of replicating David Fincher’s procedural template. He is, without a doubt, a gifted technician.

He’s also a blowhard. Back in February, when it looked like Blonde might premiere at Cannes, Dominik boasted that his film’s excessive intensity was “the audience’s fucking problem”—a preemptive strike against critics that doubled, possibly, as an acknowledgment of his own shameless prurience. “[The movie] is not running for public office,” he insisted. “It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right? I want to go and see the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story.” More recently, in a fascinating and combative interview with Christina Newland in Sight and Sound, Dominik claimed, straight up, that he didn’t have much affection or respect for Monroe’s movies, a position borne out by Blonde’s almost total exclusion of her on-screen work. Dominik films the glitzy premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in a series of predatory, overhead shots, with the screening itself ramped up to cartoony hyperspeed. The preceding red carpet trudge, meanwhile, gets dialed down into agonizing, flashbulb-popping slow motion, with paparazzi and fans alike transformed into monstrous, subhuman figures by some garishly deployed CGI right out of The Devil’s Advocate.

Subtlety is a virtue only depending on how it’s used, of course, and Dominik—who’s been a maximalist since the first overcranked frames of Chopper—comes by his allergy to understatement honestly. Any filmmaker who takes on the dizzying pretentiousness of the Jesse James myth—or who uses the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to score a scene of guys shooting heroin, or who has Nick Cave on speed dial—is probably earnest to a fault, and in many ways, Blonde gives off the signals of an authentic passion project. But not all directorial savants are created equal, and Dominik’s three-hour tale, full of sound and fury and signifying little beyond its maker’s pantheonic ambitions, tilts more toward the wrong end of that spectrum.

The director’s most confrontational gestures are also his most self-congratulatory: In what is destined to be the film’s most notorious sequence, we see a drugged-up, rubber-legged Monroe being manhandled by Secret Service agents in and out of planes and cars en route to JFK’s hotel room. There, the leader of the free world stage-manages the Cuban Missile Crisis by telephone while his guest is obliged, wordlessly, to service him. It’s a perverse metaphor for American imperial power, made sicker—and more bludgeoningly obvious—by the footage of tank cannons blaring on the television set next to the bed.

The scene takes place in 1962, a couple of years before the premiere of Dr. Strangelove; what does it say that Dominik’s callow envelope-pushing falls short of Stanley Kubrick’s old-school phallic innuendos? When the filmmaker says he “wants to see the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story,” he’s probably being honest, but his ability to show it—to justify the small eternity he lingers on his protagonist’s wide, darting eyes while keeping the oral sex itself just out of frame—is suspect at best.

The point of all this cruelty is surely that men—particularly powerful men, in Hollywood or Washington—are cruel, a juvenile tautology that adds up to nothing. Blonde may not side with Monroe’s tormentors, but it still exults, however unconsciously, in their shows of mastery and control. Even if you don’t buy Roger Ebert’s old (and faulty) maxim that “movies are machines that generate empathy,” the conflation of exploitation and empathy in Dominik’s cold, machine-tooled set pieces gets grueling fast. The knowing, potentially subversive outrageousness of having Monroe converse with her own unborn fetus (which moves the Kubrickian homage away from Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey) is undermined by the po-faced tone of the direction. There’s no black-comic wit here, just button-pushing; Dominik’s claim that his movie is “the audience’s fucking problem” is perceptive, but not in a way that flatters him or his intentions.

It should be said that, in the midst of all this arty carnage, Ana de Armas gives a performance that’s at least halfway uncanny. Beyond resembling Monroe physically, which, aided by superlative costume and makeup, she does amazingly well, the actress locates something like a character: She’s an emotional center for this vortex of a movie to swirl malevolently around. In an appreciation of Monroe published in 2011, critic Miriam Bale placed her greatness as a comedienne—the talent Dominik refuses to show or acknowledge—somewhere between a rock and a hard place. “With exaggerated wiggles accompanied by winces, slightly pained with every swish, Monroe shows a feminine paradox,” Bale wrote. “Her power is not hers, this power belongs to its effect on him, and so belongs to him.” De Armas is especially good when her Monroe is simultaneously wielding this power and submitting to its effects, like the affecting scene where she discusses Chekhov’s Three Sisters with a smitten and slightly disbelieving Arthur Miller (well-played by Adrien Brody). When Monroe tells the great playwright that her insight into Chekhov isn’t second-hand—that she came up with it herself, after reading the play—the mixture of pride and pain in her statement (and her reaction to his reaction) is palpable. It’s a humane, melancholy exchange that could be the starting point for a better movie instead of a throwaway bit in this one.

Ultimately, Dominik seems less interested in Monroe as a person than as an icon to be posed and splayed for our delectation. The final sequence is meant as a quiet, lyrical send-off for a tortured soul, with Marilyn drifting off into a fatal sleep as the afternoon light dims around her; by this point in the film, we wish the movie would let her die, but there’s one last visual trick. Dominik doubles and then superimposes her prone, unconscious, naked body with another Monroe in a pin-up pose, deliberately evoking the transcendence-in-death catharsis of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, complete with end credits that take us hurtling through deep space. It’s an audacious homage, and yet all it does is remind us of the deep reservoirs of feeling that run through Lynch’s work, which remain parched in Dominik’s. If the comparison seems unfair, remember that the latter is the one seemingly reaching for it.

Monroe was reportedly one of the inspirations for Laura Palmer, and in terms of sheer, visceral unpleasantness, Blonde has nothing on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The difference is that Lynch probably wouldn’t mistake his problems for his audience’s, or brag about rubbing them in their face. When a movie is truly shattering or devastating, there’s a residual sense of gratitude for what you’ve been through: the necessity of being shaken. Blonde is the kind of movie that brutalizes you for three hours, feigns a sigh, and says, “You’re welcome.” Well, thanks for nothing.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.