How should we assess writer-director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s historical fiction novel about the inner life of Marilyn Monroe? Some have viewed it as a biopic and judged it accordingly, worrying about its (lack of) fidelity to the known details of Monroe’s life, and attempting to evaluate how accurately or (un)fairly it presents her strengths and weaknesses, on and off screen. Others have interpreted it as a more expressionist portrayal of the gap between private and public personae – a generic peep at the tears behind the smiling mask of celebrity. Yet at its heart this is a gothic melodrama, a fever dream of childhood trauma haunting adult life, replete with skin-crawlingly cruel visions of inquisitorial torture, brutal ordeals and hellish infernos – more Nightmare on Elm Street than My Week With Marilyn.
Cuban actor Ana de Armas, who proved a scene-stealing presence in films such as Knives Out and No Time to Die, is simply extraordinary as Norma Jeane Baker, an aspiring performer for whom the spectre of Marilyn Monroe is an assumed identity – a portal to stardom. Her past is full of monsters: a mother (a mesmerising Julianne Nicholson) who drives her into raging fires and attempts to drown her in a scalding bath; and an unknown father from whom she receives creepily controlling ghostly missives. Juggling past and present, Dominik intercuts childhood fears with grownup tears as she encounters monstrous studio heads (an early “audition” leads to rape), violent husbands (Bobby Cannavale’s Joe DiMaggio beats her when pin-up photos fire his jealousy) and loveless lovers (an assignation with JFK will make you gag). Worse still are the grotesque intra-uterine visions of doctors that owe a debt to the demonic delirium of Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s Repulsion also casts a long shadow) or to the abortive abortion scene from David Cronenberg’s The Fly crossed with the imagined unborn-baby-talk of Alice Lowe’s antenatal slasher Prevenge.
In many ways, Blonde is a shrieking sister picture to the altogether gentler The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. In that masterful 2007 study of stardom, Brad Pitt’s antihero is killed by a creep who has idolised him since childhood. In Blonde, we find that near-mythological celebrity not only masks personal loss, but also draws destruction upon itself. It’s a deal made with the devil, encapsulated most acutely in a scene in which a distraught Norma Jeane waits desperately for the spirit of Marilyn to possess her, a transformation chillingly played out in her dressing-table mirror as her tears turn to a familiar megawatt smile. It’s a smile that reminded me of Sheryl Lee in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where Laura Palmer’s homecoming queen visage is fleetingly replaced with that of a screaming demon. If The Assassination of Jesse James was a film about fame dressed as a western, then Blonde is a horror movie masquerading as a film about fame.
Shifting back and forth from monochrome to colour in ever-changing screen sizes, Blonde draws heavily on iconic images of its subject in the same way that Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis seemed to breathe life into familiar still pictures. There’s something genuinely uncanny about the way Dominik places De Armas in Monroe’s shoes, reproducing well-rehearsed movie scenes in a manner that sometimes left me wondering whether this was archive or invention, memory or make-believe.
Critics will claim (justifiably) that Blonde portrays Monroe as having no agency in this victimised life story, or that the movie fails to give her credit for the comedic panache she demonstrated in hits such as Some Like It Hot (tonally, Blonde is closer to the overheated psychosis of 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock). It’s true that humour is in short supply, reduced to blackly comic gags about Kennedy watching rockets blast off while being dutifully fellated. Yet despite its note-perfect evocation of moments from Monroe’s life, I would argue that in the end Blonde isn’t really about Marilyn at all. It just happens to be wearing her wardrobe.
Underpinning it all is another gloriously evocative score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a melancholy symphony of ambient electronica and eerie voices, interspersed with tinkling acoustic themes that sprinkle a hint of tearful stardust glitter upon a sea of mournful tragedy and despair.
In cinemas now and on Netflix from Wednesday