Blurring fact and fiction, “Blonde” begins with the very young Norma Jeane and her relationship with the mentally disturbed mother (Julianne Nicholson) who was forced to give her up, returning time and again to the idea that the she never stopped pining for the father she didn’t know, while seeking to replace him with the famous men who wooed, married and exploited her.
Norma Jeane is eventually transformed into Marilyn Monroe, but even then she consistently speaks of her star persona in the third person, as if the image stands apart and utterly separate from the human being behind it.
The irony is that as much as the New Zealand-born director labors to humanize Marilyn — after numerous movies based on her life, including several for television — this version fares best in depicting the familiar image through replicating scenes from her films. De Armas and the staggering hair/makeup/costume work present those moments so uncannily (occasionally mixed with footage of Monroe’s co-stars) that you have to blink to make sure it’s not the real thing.
Beyond that, the film gruelingly drags on through unhappy interludes of the actress being used and abused, oscillating between color and black-and-white imagery in a way that feels arbitrary. Dominik also deals distastefully with Monroe’s lost pregnancies by peeking at the fetus inside her, which becomes symbolic of just how overdone much of the movie is.
Several supporting roles are also impressive, with Bobby Cannavale and Adrien Brody as Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio (again shown grimacing through “The Seven Year Itch” shoot) and playwright Arthur Miller, respectively.
Still, “Blonde” is almost entirely de Armas’ show, and to the extent it’s worth sitting through at all give her every ounce of credit. When she tells DiMaggio, “I’ve been happy all my life” in Monroe’s honeyed voice, the lie is as unconvincing as it is heartbreaking.
In a private setting, viewers will be able to take all the breaks they need to weather the experience, but they won’t be able to escape the film’s relentlessly lurid, in-your-face approach. Indeed, once you get past admiring de Armas’ immersion into the role, that’s the only itch that “Blonde” seems to know how to scratch.
“Blonde” premieres September 16 in select US theaters and September 28 on Netflix. It’s rated NC-17.