“It’s just a crazy dream,” whispers Marilyn Monroe in her baby-doll voice in Blonde. You could say the same for director Andrew Dominik’s often hallucinogenic take on the tragic star’s life.
Based on the book by Joyce Carol Oates, the film takes an impressionistic look at Monroe – or rather Norma Jeane, the woman behind the film star. Frequently switching between colour and black-and-white, Dominik pulls out all the tricks across an exhaustive 166-minute journey that will leave you spent by the end.
Premiering in competition at the Venice film festival before it releases on Netflix on Sept 23, there’s no questioning Dominik’s artistry as he tries to crack open Norma Jeane’s fragile shell.
The film moves chronologically, beginning with her sad childhood with no father and an abusive, drunken mother (Julianne Nicholson) who will later be admitted to hospital. From there she’s moving into Hollywood circles, into a world of predatory men all too willing to place her on the casting couch.
Cast as the lead, Ana de Armas (No Time to Die) gives everything to playing Monroe – she looks and sounds uncanny at times in what is very much a non-traditional biopic.
Characters are given names like The Ex-Athlete, a nod to former baseball player Joe DiMaggio, her second husband, played here by Bobby Cannavale. Or The Playwright, her third spouse, Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody).
Nothing seems quite real in Marilyn’s dizzying world, one dominated by the distress over never knowing her father and her desperate desire to become a mother.
Dominik has little interest in regurgitating Monroe’s career, although infamous moments are touched on. Her skirt billowing from the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch leads to a distressing scene of domestic abuse. The classic “I’m not very bright, I guess” line in Some Like It Hot is followed by an on-set meltdown.
Movie stardom is anything but glamorous; rather it’s a procession of men leering and jeering at her – as one slow-motion arrival at a premiere shows. She is meat, ready to be chewed up, spat out.
Controversy will doubtless swirl around the sex scenes – notably a beautifully shot threesome with Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jnr (Evan Williams), two sons of famous Hollywood stars who are equally lost.
But, and this is typified by the film’s other shocker – giving oral sex to John F. Kennedy as rockets boom in the background on TV – there’s nothing subtle about Blonde. Ultimately, for all its flashes of brilliance, it gets lost in its own self-importance.
Blonde will start streaming on Netflix on Sept 23.