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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Blonde"

Blonde is an exquisitely made autopsy of a film, distilling the life and career of Marilyn Monroe into a 165-minute howl of misery and exhaustively detailing how she was abused, assaulted, exploited, patronized, infantilized and ultimately abandoned. It’s a movie about the waking nightmare of fame, about the desecration of a beloved icon that is itself a deliberate act of desecration.

The film inspired plenty of hand wringing before anyone had seen a frame of it: Its NC-17 rating sparked rumors about its explicit sexual content, and pre-release interviews with writer-director Andrew Dominik suggested an incuriosity about Marilyn Monroe as an artist. Blonde does turn out to be a challenging, punishing movie, but less because of its abject cruelty than because it is told with such thudding, repetitive obviousness.

Ana de Armas plays the woman born Norma Jean Mortensen, and it’s the sort of performance that could certainly be labeled courageous — not only because she’s required to be in a near constant state of sorrow but because it’s quite a feat to convincingly portray one of the most recognizable women of the 20th century. De Armas, her face perpetually streaked with tears, never quite shakes her accent, but it’s a refreshingly unselfconscious performance, raw and exposed in ways the film only occasionally earns.

Blonde is based on a stream-of-consciousness novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which borrowed details from history while fabricating others. It traces Monroe’s life almost exclusively through her relationships with men: her marriages to the brutish Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and the emotionally aloof Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody); her tender friendship with a makeup artist (Toby Huss) who lovingly covers her bruises with foundation; the studio heads, producers and politicians who treated her like trash or worse. These relationships, the movie appears to argue, stem from Monroe being abandoned by her father: She reads letters from him throughout the movie, she calls both of her husbands “daddy,” she’s even fantasizing about an imaginary version of her father as she dies.

The film really ends up being a testament to its own style, and Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is often beguiling. It’s always in a state of visual flux, regularly changing aspect ratios and switching between color and black and white, seemingly at random. It employs silent movie irises and whip pans and disorienting handheld camerawork and dreamy voiceover narration from several sources, including an unborn baby begging Marilyn not to abort it.

So this is not a subtle film; after all, its idea of interiority involves literally placing the camera inside Marilyn’s womb. But compare it to Baz Luhrmann’s recent Elvis, another decadent study of a cultural institution, and you see that Luhrmann at least understands why we should care about Elvis in the first place — as a performer, as a symbol, as a human being. By comparison, Dominik’s interest in Marilyn Monroe extends only to her pain, as if she was famous solely because she was a victim. He doesn’t really empathize with her; he merely pities her.

“In the movies they chop you to bits,” Norma Jean observes at one point, “but you’re not the one who puts the pieces together.” Perhaps this is a rare moment of self-awareness on Dominik’s part. Blonde really only has one basic idea: that Marilyn Monroe lived a short, brutish life and that her talent and intellect were never truly appreciated. But it doesn’t seem to appreciate those things, either.

Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101,” Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.