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Blonde review – Andrew Dominik imagines Marilyn Monroe’s life as a gauntlet of misery

Ana de Armas is well-cast as the Hollywood icon in the Australian director's beautifully made but repetitive and exhausting film

A feel-bad movie of rotten resplendency, Andrew Dominik’s morbidly gorgeous adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates novel is a Hollywood nightmare in which gentleman do not so much prefer blondes as suck the life out of them. Oates’ book, a work of fiction, reimagined the life of the world’s most famous film star, taking liberties with the timeline and inventing scenarios as to find new truths in the seemingly impenetrable, tragic figure at its core.

With single-minded excess, Dominik’s movie version positions Monroe (Ana de Armas) as a punching bag for Tinseltown's moral decay. His Blonde unfolds as a three-hour gauntlet of misery, pushing the Some Like It Hot star from one horrifying situation to the next, leaving little room for emotional variation: her traumatic upbringing at the hands of an abusive mother; the “casting couch” where a studio head violates her in exchange for a role. We see a fictional three-way with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson; takes on her real relationships with the violent Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and kindly Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, on fine form in an underwritten part).

There's arguably some justification for such grim repetition; Dominik wants us to feel the onslaught that lead to an identity dissolved in the service of others. But for a movie based on a work of fiction that many assumed would give Monroe some agency, it chooses instead to cast her as pure victim and can at times feel awfully exploitive in its approach. Positioned as a woman whose daddy issues are driving her identity crisis, and whose desire – and failing – to have a baby colours every moment (even those that Dominik photographs in period black-and-white), nearly every scene involves Monroe sobbing or breaking down, being beaten or abused.

Dominik’s skill as a filmmaker is certainly on full display, especially during an opening section that has the then young Norma Jean and her mother navigating an apocalyptic Los Angeles literally set ablaze, ash raining down from the sky. Throughout, he scatters in weird, experimental flourishes that shake-up the movie whenever it feels like it's becoming too much of a conventional biopic – be it interior shots from inside Marilyn's womb, or in the blurring and warping of men's faces in order to put us in her ever-declining state of mind.

Excellent, too, are the sequences in which Armas – well-cast – is seamlessly inserted into a number of Monroe's most famous pictures, classics like Niagra and Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Blink and for a second you could genuinely mistake the actress for the Blonde Bombshell herself. If Armas' turn ultimately flirts with impression rather than fully lived-in performance, it's maybe forgivable: the movie argues that Monroe’s on-screen persona overwhelmed her sense of self to the extent that she lost sight of who she was. We're watching somebody doing a performance of a performance of a performance – Armas sells that aspect through and through.

But beneath the creative flourishes – like a remarkable dissolve used during a sex scene – and exemplary craft – Dominik's handling of colour correction and the switching of aspect ratios is always interesting – there is something oddly hollow and surface level about this depiction. It never quite pushes into territory that feels enlightening, or insightful, a real case of “What’s the point of this?” hanging over the picture. And because the movie makes no clear distinction in the viewers' mind between which aspects are real or imagined, it leaves a funny taste.

It's hard not to question whether this film gives us anything that we didn’t already know, or at least surmise, about Monroe. And was her life really entirely free of moments of joy and happiness, as depicted here? The lack of levity can be oppressive. Dominik always keeps his characters at a remove – we never really understand the circus of people who surround the star as anything other than figures in a complicit plan to wield her to their own advantage: sexually, financially…. she is, in her own words, a “bit of meat.” But that's how the film treats her too.

The movie, exhausting in its campaign of grimness, comes to resemble a collection of stunningly rendered but gruelling sequences more than it does a fully-fledged narrative feature worthy of an almost three-hour runtime. Blonde is unquestionably as beautiful as the star as its centre – though it’s never quite clear where its intentions lie. Many may come away wondering whether it is actually about Marilyn Monroe at all.

Blonde was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 23 September.

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