‘Blonde’ movie review: Ana de Armas digs deep as icon Marilyn Monroe in brutal film

What a dream it must be to be Marilyn Monroe, a star assistant told her. “Everyone would give their right arm to be you!”

And we cringe, as we will repeatedly during Andrew Dominik’s brutal, murderous and often beautiful “Blonde,” featuring a heartbreaking Ana de Armas. This time it’s because we already know that Norma Jeane, the real person below, gives so much more than her right arm to be Marilyn. An arm would easily get off. She gives her body, her reason, her dignity, her health and probably her soul to be Marilyn.

There’s a lot going on in “Blonde,” written and directed by Dominik with stunning cinematography by Chayse Irvin. Let us first specify what it is not.

It’s not a biopic, not in a colloquial sense. It is not chronological, nor an attempt at a complete narrative. More importantly, it’s not factual – it’s based on a novel, “Blonde” by Joyce Carol Oates.

And as for the performance at its core – engaged, fearless, with no faith in a de Armas performance – well, it’s no imitation. And so the complaints circulating about his accent, that his native Cuban inflection sometimes shines through, are absurd and irrelevant. De Armas digs so deep to play Marilyn, she could speak ancient Greek and it wouldn’t affect the emotional truth she finds here.

What ‘Blonde’ IS is ambitious. Far reaching, sometimes maybe too far. And often gorgeous, especially in the skillfully rendered scenes of old-school Hollywood glitz, mostly in black and white — the endless flashes erupting (and sounding like gunshots) on the red carpet, the ogling fans, their faces sometimes distorted by lust. There are wonderful recreations of scenes from movies like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “The Seven Year Itch.”

Less compelling are the moments when you see sperm moving toward an egg to indicate pregnancy, or a fetus speaking reproachfully to its future mother. Subtlety is not an objective here. An even trickier question is the line between displaying a character’s horrific exploitation and contributing to that exploitation. As with many works of art, even as skillful as this one, there is no easy answer, and different times cut in different ways.

We start at the beginning – and it’s a terrible start. The young Norma Jeane (a heartbreaking Lily Fisher) lives alone with her mother (Julianne Nicholson, superb and terrifying) who is gradually sinking into madness. On her birthday, her mother shows the little girl a picture of a handsome man who she says was her father. The girl will hurt for him from that day on. Life isn’t safe with her mother, and when the woman finally breaks down (the mother-daughter scenes are traumatic), Norma Jeane soon finds herself in an orphanage.

Flash forward to adult Marilyn, showing up for a big audition with a studio head – who rapes her. Later, when future husband Joe DiMaggio asks her how she got started in movies, her mind goes straight to rape. Outwardly, she will only say, with hollow eyes: “I guess I’ve been discovered.”

One of the strangest elements here is Marilyn’s (fictional) friendship with the sons of Edward G. Robinson and Charlie Chaplin, with whom she becomes a trio in every way. At this time, she becomes pregnant, and the studio organizes an abortion. When the ordeal is over, the song “Bye, Bye Baby” appears on the soundtrack – one of many musical cues on the nose (when dropped off at the orphanage, we hear “Everybody Needs a Da- Da-Daddy” from Monroe’s “Ladies of the Chorus”).

DiMaggio, the retired baseball legend (an excellent Bobby Cannavale), promises Marilyn a decent and respectable life but is consumed by jealousy. He orders the woman who calls him “dad” to make movies where she isn’t so sexy. It doesn’t quite work when “The Seven Year Itch” requires her to stand on the subway grate and flutter her white dress around her waist. Dominik beautifully recreates this famous scene and shows DiMaggio fuming with rage while watching the set, amid ogling fans.

Like Cannavale, Adrien Brody is wonderfully cast as Marilyn’s next husband, playwright Arthur Miller, a cerebral man who is amazed at her real intellect – she reads Chekhov! – and offers what she hopes will be a stable life in Connecticut. She becomes pregnant but tragedy strikes again. Soon Marilyn will be hitting pills, bottles and pill bottles.

Then, of course, there’s JFK. We don’t see the famous “Happy Birthday Mr. President” performance. But in 1962 (the year of her actual death) Marilyn is taken by the President’s agents to a hotel room, and the film never seems so depressing as in the sordid task that awaits her, presaged in her earlier question. plaintive to his men. “Am I room service?”

It’s likely that this scene explains the film’s NC-17 rating. In any case, it sums up the indignity that accompanied Norma Jeane’s transformation into one of the enduring figures of 20th century pop culture. If it was Marilyn who initially saved Norma Jeane, says Dominik, it is also Marilyn who submerged, suffocated and probably killed her.

“Blonde,” a Netflix release, was rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some sexual content.” Duration: 166 minutes. Three out of four stars.


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