Maybe we as a society have been too harsh on Netflix? Sure, they spend an exorbitant amount of money on cinematic trash that they’ll claim broke viewership records, yet will never make a cultural impact (*cough* Red Notice & The Gray Man *cough*). And yes, they may have created a culture that’s more focused on constant consumption than finely tuned tasting.
But while all of that was (and still is) true, they’ve also financed some of the finest works from our best filmmakers. They stepped in and supplied Martin Scorsese with $150 million to bring The Irishman to life, and also gave Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma a much grander life than any arthouse film has ever had before. They also ushered in the grand return of Jane Campion to the feature film landscape with The Power of the Dog, which was undeservedly robbed of a Best Picture win by their rival Apple TV+’s CODA. And with Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, the paradoxical streamer has added another feather to their cap.
To be fair to Dominik, he did have to fight Netflix tooth and nail to release his cut of the film, which runs at a hefty 166 minutes and is saddled with the infamous NC-17 rating. One can’t wholly blame the distributor for trying to demand cuts to make the film a bit more “mainstream,” while at the same time ridiculing them for not fully understanding who they were getting into bed with. “Mainstream” never has, nor will it ever be, a word used to describe Dominik’s filmography. This is the man who brought us not one, but two, films starring Brad Pitt at the height of his stardom that bombed at the box office. That’s not to say the films deserved it though. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly are both modern masterpieces that use their big-name stars for much more than good looks. The same goes for Blonde, which luckily won’t have to deal with the unneeded baggage of box office returns. Dominik uses star Ana de Armas to perfection, making her first solo leading role a mesmerizing experience.
Telling the story of Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jeane as that was her real name, Blonde has much more in common with David Lynch’s Inland Empire than it does with any biopic. A line by Monroe about one of her movies may as well have been planted by Dominik to describe his film: “You never know when the dream ends and the nightmare begins.”
Working as a fever dream, Blonde interweaves between reality and fiction as it tracks Marilyn’s troubled upbringing to her untimely death. None of it happens in chronological (or just plain logical) order, with Dominik throwing the viewer, as well as Marilyn, through the wringer of her memories. The frames endlessly jump around as well, from a boxed-in sharp black-and-white that would even make Pawel Pawlikowski blush, to vivid widescreen technicolor. Through this, Dominik traps you in Marilyn’s world, never knowing what the next moment will bring, always looking ahead with a sense of unease.
As Monroe, De Armas finds that vulnerability that made her such an enigma of a public figure. How could such a beautiful and tempting bombshell be so broken? It’s a physically and emotionally demanding role, with De Armas going for broke with unnerving fearlessness. If not for the film itself being so off-putting, Netflix should make a serious push for her in this year’s Oscar race.
Of course, some viewers (mostly the ones that stumble upon this because they press play on whatever filled the home screen on Netflix) will cry foul at the liberties Dominik has taken with Monroe’s story. One enemy he’ll surely have is Oliver Stone, who presumably will take great umbrage at the film’s vitriolic portrayal of President Kennedy. But is Dominik’s film, and by extension the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, any more or less “true” than other biopics such as this year’s Elvis or Bohemian Rhapsody, which also took great creative liberties with a person’s life? Blonde does better than those films because even with inaccuracies towards details, it delivers a cinematic experience that relates us more to the figure than we did before pressing play.
Just as The Northman did for Robert Eggers, Blonde illustrates why Andrew Dominik deserves all the money and creative freedom that any studio can afford. Fortunately for him (and us), Netflix indulged in his fantasies, allowing for a nightmarishly surreal experience that highlights the beautiful tragedy that was the life of Norma Jeane.