"Where does dreaming end and madness begin?"
Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) asks her soon-to-be husband (Bobby Cannavale) this on their first date. It's a question this baffling movie will likely leave you asking after it's over.
Blonde is the long-gestating adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's mammoth fictional account of Monroe's life. Its journey to the big screen has been fraught with controversy, which will continue long after the movie hits Netflix. It's a punishing movie by design, but also so stylish that you'll end the movie knowing even less about Marilyn than you did before. That's a shame, given de Armas's great lead performance and the many astonishing technical aspects.
In many ways, it reminded me of this year's Elvis. It's got too much of everything, which makes it add up to a whole lot of nothing. The film is part exaggerated biography, part backstage intrigue, part horror show, all glossed up like a perfume commercial. Only the nightmarish elements work. Any audition, rehearsal or intimate moment can turn into hell on a dime. It's also the best use of the film's overly busy camerawork. In one late scene, a cross-country flight turns into a red carpet arrival turns into a terrifying ordeal, all exacerbated by drugs.
There's little relief for Marilyn or the audience, as she becomes trapped by abusive partners, sleazy businessmen and substance abuse. The rare respite from this awfulness arrives an early section, when she hooks up with two other lost souls (Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams) and later, during her marriage to Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Yet there's no happy ending, as each relationship gets tainted by addiction.
Similarly, Dominik is addicted to using as many camera tricks and aspect ratios as possible. Black-and-white scenes explode with color. Boxy, claustrophobic framing gives way to ultra-widescreen images. There are even multiple POV shots from inside Marilyn's womb. All of this is showy without being illuminating. Yet the sound design works as intended. Flashbulbs exploding can sound like gunshots. Squeals of delight can sound like screams of agony. Thunderous applause can sound like a frightening storm. Real and imagined torment blur constantly.
Much has been made of the film's NC-17 rating, a first for Netflix. But the film is less graphic than a typical episode of The Boys, or even the two most recent films to get the dreaded rating (Blue Is the Warmest Color and Shame). While de Armas frequently appears nude, nothing here is titillating. Sex is just one more way men seek to control and abuse her. Her sex appeal is a weapon, but only to be wielded by studio execs for $500 a week.
Like Marilyn's career, Blonde had so much promise. But it ended in tragedy and makes you wonder what could have been.