What’s true and what’s not in Marilyn Monroe’s life? This is a question from Andrew Dominik Blond— the star’s nebulous new kind of biopic — declines to clarify. Instead, the gray areas, the unknown gaps in its story, are filled with an imaginary lacquer.
It’s a lavish, rule-breaking melodrama based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name. On the book’s copyright page, Oates wrote that Blond was “not a biography of Monroe, nor even a biographical novel which follows the historical facts of the subject’s life.” Instead, she used Monroe’s life as a vessel for a story about 20th-century American stardom. It’s not just about Marilyn Monroe but many others as well.
Andrew Dominik’s film, which runs just minutes before three hours and was marred by production controversies, follows much the same path. It opens in 1933: Hollywood is literally on fire, and a young Norma Jeane Mortenson (Lily Fisher) is pushed straight into the flames by her mother, who insists that on the other side of hell they will find refuge in the house of the biological father of Norma Jean, an influential figure in the industry who has remained distant for years. It’s a great metaphor, underscoring the film’s depiction of fame as a dangerous, tumultuous thing that only the lucky ones survive; in the end, Norma Jeane and her mother have to turn back.
From then on, Monroe is played by Ana de Armas, in the kind of haunting, transformative role that should garner rewards. As she goes through a series of lovers and husbands, nearly every major man in her life goes by the nickname dad, from boxer Joe DiMaggio to playwright Arthur Miller. Yet the almost cosmic power she has over people is clear, whether it’s her partners – who seem constantly thrilled and then repelled by her beauty – or her voracious fans on the street, who we don’t see only sparingly.
These scenes are assembled like photographic vignettes, moving from black and white to color and changing the aspect ratio. Dominik spoke of his desire to reproduce existing photographs of Monroe in almost surreal detail, but beneath their easy beauty each moment explores or guides us to the key elements that tormented Monroe: the perils of the public eye; the stolen autonomy that seems normal for a woman in Hollywood. “The circle of light is yours,” Monroe repeats as the paparazzi cameras flash, capturing her perfect smile. Later, when a flashlight illuminates her pale body, flared for an abortion performed against her will, she will say the same thing.