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This gentleman did not prefer ‘Blonde’

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Few film genres are as well-worn as the biopic. We’ve been getting movies that offer takes on the life stories of real people pretty much since we’ve been getting movies. And when you’ve got a style of film that has been around for this long – everything from moment-in-time to cradle-to-grave – well … it can be tough to stand out.

And sometimes, even when you do stand out, it’s for the wrong reasons.

Andrew Dominik’s new film “Blonde” – currently streaming on Netflix – is one such standout. Adapted by Dominik from the 2000 Joyce Carol Oates fictionalized biography of the same name, it purports to tell the story (or A story, anyway) about the silver screen legend Marilyn Monroe. And in its way, it does that, taking us from her troubled childhood through her Hollywood ebbs and flows and her tumultuous personal life all the way to her tragic too-soon end.

The manner in which it does that, however, is … complicated.

The story plays out in a fractured and haphazard manner, both narratively and stylistically. We move through time in fits and starts, staying in some places too long and blurring past others. There are flashbacks upon flashbacks and frequent insertions of surreality. The aesthetics of the film wander with no seeming rhyme or reason, shifting from black and white to flashes of color at random and changing aspect ratios seemingly on a whim.

It's an undeniably bold effort – one that includes some exceptional performances, including by Ana de Armas in the lead – but that boldness seems utterly untempered by any mitigating influence. The result is a shaggy and meandering film whose staggering 167-minute runtime is marked by extended stretches that could be (and should have been) excised with little to no impact on the overall experience of the film.

There’s little need to spell out the biography of Marilyn Monroe. “Blonde” mostly sticks to the greatest hits (or at least, its version of the greatest hits – while this is a biopic, it definitely plays fast and loose with the reality of the story being told).

We meet young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) as she’s being raised by her mentally unstable mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Her father is out of the picture, though Gladys claims that he is a very important person who will someday return to be a part of the family. Instead, Gladys has a severe breakdown and is institutionalized, leaving Norma Jeane as a ward of the state.

Norma Jeane grows up and gets into the entertainment industry under the stage name of Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas). She starts off as a pin-up girl, posing for racy calendars and magazine covers. Her initial forays into Hollywood lead in some dark directions – up to and including rape – before she finally starts landing parts in the early 1950s.

Her star is on the rise, and we see her enter into an unconventional relationship with a pair of Hollywood scions – Charlie “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) – a relationship that she loves, but that she ultimately abandons at the advice of her agent.

From there, stardom. She makes the movies we all know and love, with all the complicated circumstances that surround them. She enters into the relationships we’re all familiar with – the marriages to the Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale) and the Playwright (Adrien Brody) and the affair with the President (Caspar Phillipson) – even as she’s haunted by mysterious missives from her long-absent father. And she gradually falls apart beneath the pressures of Hollywood and the unrelenting shadows of her own troubled past.

All of this rendered via an aesthetic that borders on the nonsensical, packed with moments that are baffling or graphic or both; this film received an NC-17 rating and let me tell you, it earns it.

I’m genuinely unsure what to say about “Blonde.” There are aspects of this film that are not just good, but exceptional. There are others that are clunky and poorly conceived. And then you’ve got the bits that are so inexplicable as to defy any conventional notion of “good” or “bad.” It’s all thrown together into this bizarre blend that left me scratching my head and wondering just what the point of all this actually was.

Andrew Dominik is obviously aiming to provoke with the choices being made here. It’s an understandable choice – considering the degree of controversy inherent to this sort of fabulist biography, one can only go big and hope for the best. Alas, the best does not occur. While there are numerous moments that are visually striking and emotionally impactful, far too much of the film seems to be doing stuff for the sake of doing it. A color switch here, an aspect ratio shift there. Talking fetuses, graphic fellatio – it gets weird. So much of the film is just a mess of ham-handed visual metaphors that are either obvious or inscrutable.

The line between real and unreal is at times distinct, at others blurred … and sometimes simply nonexistant. It’s as if Baz Luhrmann made a movie without musical numbers or whimsy or joy, opting instead for visual lunacy and nigh-unrelenting bleakness.

And yet, despite the film’s fundamental weirdness, the performances are actually outstanding. Ana de Armas would not have been my first thought to play Marilyn Monroe, but there’s no denying that she finds something here. It is an ethereal and utterly committed turn, one that captures the contradictory complexity of the character as she exists within this hyperstylized and surreal world. She manages to be compelling as hell for the entire voyage, navigating the film’s bizarre nature with deftness and aplomb. A top-tier performance in a film that, to be frank, would have been borderline unwatchable without her.

The supporting cast has some standouts as well. Cannavale and Brody are both excellent as the Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller analogues; Brody especially does a wonderful job of embodying the cerebral playwright, but each man finds his way into the unique connection between himself and Marilyn. Samuel and Williams are awash in sleazy charm, bringing forward the nepotistic energy that marks a certain brand of silver-spoon partyboy. Phillipson’s moment is brief, but lurid – you’ll never look at our 35th president in quite the same way again. But again, even great performances can only do so much in the face of the inexplicable.

“Blonde” is a movie that confounds and confuses. It pushes at the boundaries of what a biopic can be, but never really makes clear why it is pushing. Marilyn Monroe is a fascinating figure in 20th century pop culture history, tragic and titillating. Unfortunately, “Blonde” is all tragedy and titillation, wrapped in stylistic and narrative chaos.

“It’s all make-believe, isn’t it?” – Marilyn Monroe

Last modified on Monday, 03 October 2022 14:08

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