Review by Shane McKevitt
Premiering at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month, director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde (2022) chronicles the career of Marylin Monroe, with Ana de Armas in the lead role. An adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Blonde takes liberties with its subject matter, conveying the story of Monroe with the benefit of half-truths, rumors, and even total fictionalizations. The film doesn’t hide this fact; Blonde is clearly a stylized, loose retelling of a life story, one that has become a facet of American folklore and Hollywood legend. Prior to its premiere, Blonde received attention, both positive and negative, for having been given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA. With Monroe’s tumultuous rise to stardom and subsequent demise, many saw this as a positive sign, one indicating an appropriately honest, brutal, and unsettling portrayal of the starlet’s career. Unfortunately, I found this to be far from the case.
Is the rating warranted? I suppose. Are there some unnerving sequences? Sure. However, it never felt as though they served the story in any meaningful way. Consider, for arguments sake, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002), a film with some similarly repugnant depictions of sexual assault and violence. While these scenes are extremely difficult to watch, they serve the narrative perfectly, adding dramatic and emotional weight that wouldn’t be there otherwise. The same simply isn’t true for Blonde; it feels as though these sequences were included just for the sake of it, rather than as a means to add narrative weight or intrigue. This brings me to my main issue with the film overall: the story. Of course, Blonde is bookended by Monroe’s traumatic upbringing and premature death. As for the parts in between, it often feels like a dull highlight reel, for lack of a better term. Armas is good in the role, yet her character is woefully underdeveloped. Monroe is depicted as a childlike, vapid vessel who is routinely cut off at the knees. The film does a good job of building sympathy for her, but to what end? I never found myself narratively engaged or interested in what was going to happen next. Instead, I was just left waiting for another awful thing to inevitably happen to her. All of this wasn’t helped by some peculiar stylistic choices, particularly the CGI fetus that makes routine appearances and, at one point, actually talks.
With all of this being said, there are certain aspects of Blonde that I really enjoyed. The juxtaposition of black and white footage with colour is extremely well done, as are all the sequences depicting the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood; the costume and set designers did an amazing job. Moreover, the scenes where de Armas is superimposed into clips from Monroe’s films is done flawlessly, it’s a visual effect that I always get a kick out of. Finally, the supporting performances are largely very good, particularly Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio, who is excellent as always. Overall, despite a few bright spots, I was left extremely disappointed by Blonde. The film is a perfect example of style over substance. While it is admirably brash in its brutal, unapologetic approach to storytelling, it does so at the expense of interesting characters and a compelling narrative.