It felt slightly scandalous going to a showing of Netflix’s NC-17 Marilyn Monroe film this weekend. I experienced a pang of déjà vu as I handed over my driver’s license to the ticket taker, like I was using a fake ID at some run-down liquor store. Blonde, however, is anything but low class. The film features some of the most captivating performances and astounding camerawork of the year.
Blonde is a fictionalized film recounting the life of Norma Jeane Mortenson, aka Marilyn Monroe, from her traumatic childhood to her heartbreaking death. The plot itself is a bit scattershot and long-winded, drifting from scene to scene with a dreamlike quality. Certain scenes feel almost listless, but serve as a vehicle for an Ana de Armas masterclass.
After breaking out with memorable roles in Knives Out and No Time to Die, Ana de Armas commands the screen here, putting on a truly impressive and harrowing performance. She portrays a woman torn between two worlds—the bubbly, bigger-than-life role of Marilyn in public and on set, and the traumatized and abused Norma Jeane in private. In one particularly striking scene, we see Norma Jeane at her lowest, begging for Marilyn to come to her, before physically transforming with a glowing smile. Ana de Armas is Marilyn Monroe here, and shines amongst a stellar cast featuring the always excellent Adrien Brody along with standout Xavier Samuel.
Director Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly, The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and cinematographer Chayse Irvin (BlacKkKlansman, Lemonade) do a stunning job transporting the audience back to classic Hollywood. They use shifts in aspect ratio to replicate famous photographs of Monroe, and effortlessly switch back and forth between scenes shot in color and in black and white. A series of fever dream-like jump cuts and a long take focused on a package are some of the highlights of this exceptionally well-crafted film. The costumes are not only stunning, but replicate many of the iconic looks Monroe sported throughout the years.
The script, however, could use a bit of work. Certain lines of dialogue during the beginning of the film, depicting Norma Jeane’s childhood, are stilted and unnatural. These scenes are key to the rest of the movie, but Blonde is only finding its footing here until it comes into its own later.
Controversies in casting and source material aside (read the excellent work by Manohla Dargis and Angelica Jade Bastién), the film is NC-17 for a reason and contains very mature content. The film depicts several scenes of graphic abuse and sexual assault. The sexual content in particular stands out and feels like it’s being used for cruel shock value. The film’s attempt to make a statement about the abuse of women in Hollywood is undercut when—through its visuals—it participates in that cycle of exploitation.
I would compare Blonde most closely to Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, released earlier this year; the two stand as sister films. Both period pieces feature stunning performances and near-perfect camerawork. More importantly, Blonde and Elvis showcase the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry that took these two stars from the world far before their time. Ultimately, the film’s performances and technical mastery outweigh its missteps and plot issues, and places it firmly into the awards conversation.