Clocking in at nearly three hours, this phantasmal riff on the life of movie star Marilyn Monroe will do for people with bad backs what its inspiration, Joyce Carol Oates’ 738-page novel, did for fragile wrists. By turns ravishing, moving and intensely irritating, Blonde is, by the end, all a bit much – in every sense.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik (best known for macho yarns such as Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has forged Monroe’s story into Wagnerian-scale opera, except there’s no singing – apart from the bit where Monroe (Ana de Armas) rasps out Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. At least there’s a lush score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to take up the musical slack, synth-forward and full of plaintive anxiety in the key changes, one that tempers and harmonises the histrionic emotional register.
This is a portrait of Monroe that accentuates her suffering and anguish, canonising her into a feminist saint who died for our scopophilic sins, that we might feast on her beauty and talent. Maybe it’s not an opera but a kind of religious ritual for the modern age, visiting the stations of the crosses Monroe bore, the Passion of the Marilyn. Like the Gospels, both the source material and the film were written long after the anointed one worked her miracles, so the Blonde version of the Marilyn story is full of historical distortions, rumours and pure fictional projection, such as imagining her living in a polyamorous throuple with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson Jr (Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams) before she hits the big time.
All the early stuff, which lays out her miserable childhood, is probably sound enough historically. We see how young Norma Jeane Baker (played as a child by Lily Fisher) was profoundly traumatised by abuse from her unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson, magnificent). When she’s not driving the poor kid through raging wildfires or trying to drown her in the bathtub, Gladys is trying to convince Norma Jeane that the unnamed movie star whose picture hangs on the wall is her absent father (allegedly the real Monroe thought Clark Gable was her father), setting up daddy issues that echo through the film.
The psychological framework is very old-school Hollywood Freudian, which doesn’t give Monroe herself much agency in her story. She is sexually exploited all the way through, by a studio head named Mr Z who effectively rapes her at the beginning, right on through to John F Kennedy who compels her to perform fellatio while he watches missiles being raised on TV in a painfully on-the-nose scene that probably earned the movie its notorious NC-17 rating.
Some viewers might feel that at times the film itself slips into an exploitativeness that is problematic. That also applies to the troubling, easy-to-misinterpret scenes where we see foetuses inside Marilyn’s body that, though never brought to term, talk to her. These sections could easily be seen as anti-abortion propaganda when probably the intention was just the opposite: to show how little control Monroe had over her own body.
It will be interesting to see how this plays to audiences when it comes out and eventually hits Netflix, testing whether Monroe’s story still speaks to viewers younger than the baby boomers who remember her when she was still alive. De Armas’s intense and ultimately persuasive performance goes a long way towards bringing the goddess down to earth, but will that be enough?
Likewise, does the film’s glossy stylistic swirl, oscillating between silvery monochrome sequences and grainy vintage colours that look like old Kodachrome portraits come to life, help or hinder us in the quest to understand Monroe? Will we still be swooning over her and watching her films for another 70 years? We might, but I’m not sure anyone will watch Blonde with the same reverence.
• Blonde is released in cinemas on 18 September and on Netflix on 28 September.