Don’t blame Ana de Armas. After lurid opening sequences in which young Norma Jeane Mortenson (played as a child by Lily Fisher) is tormented and eventually abandoned by her alcoholic and abusive mother (Julianne Nicholson), de Armas takes full control of the screen, transforming into the familiar screen icon before our eyes, posing for cheesecake shots and eventually auditioning for her first film. That scene ends with a rape that can’t help but conjure images of Harvey Weinstein and the “casting couch” tradition he so brutally perpetuated. The rest of “Blonde” continues apace, with Monroe encountering creepy, dismissive or outright violent men who continually underestimate and betray her.
Although her Spanish accent peeks through at times (especially when Monroe meets “the Playwright,” a.k.a. Arthur Miller, played by Adrien Brody), de Armas fully inhabits Monroe’s woundedness and vulnerability. Dominik often re-creates familiar images from newsreels and Monroe’s most famous movies, in which de Armas slips seamlessly into character. A choppily edited composition of free-associative fragments, literalistic reenactments and pseudo-literary voice-overs, “Blonde” sets up Monroe’s primal journey as a continual, fruitless search for Da-Da-Daddy, a point Dominik drives home with the subtlety of a Buick. That leads America’s favorite little-girl-lost to glom onto a series of ill-advised liaisons, from the bullying Joe DiMaggio (“Ex-Athlete,” played by Bobby Cannavale) to “the President” John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), who features in one of the film’s many tasteless scenes, in this case of Monroe performing oral sex while he watches a rocket launch on TV.
“Blonde” suggests that Monroe’s most authentically loving relationship might have been a three-way she enjoyed with Charles Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), two knockabout alcoholics who recognize her as Norma Jeane rather than Marilyn. It’s all very salacious, with Dominik staging imagined chapters of his heroine’s life with gobsmackingly crass detail, whether he’s giving us a speculum’s-eye view of her vagina or cutting away to her unborn children, here presented as fetuses in utero, one of whom begs not to be aborted in a little-girl voice that echoes de Armas’s carefully practiced Monroe whisper.
The scene is outrageous, not because it’s for or against abortion rights, but because it’s so gauche and utterly artless. But even at its most gruesome and bizarre, “Blonde” might be most unforgivable in what it leaves out — not regarding Monroe’s short, unhappy life but her sublime gifts. There are short clips of her work in such classics as “All About Eve,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Some Like It Hot,” but Dominik never allows de Armas to convey her character’s exquisite comic timing, superb physical grace or shrewdness.
Her ambition is portrayed as a matter of temperament and pique rather than knowing her worth; although the film takes note of the men who are continually surprised that Monroe reads Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Dominik commits the very violation he’s critiquing. This goes double during a scene when Monroe is filming the subway-grate shot in “The Seven Year Itch,” during which his camera lingers and leers with unsavory insistence.
Later, at the premiere of the film, he portrays the gathered reporters, photographers and gawkers — mostly men — as grotesques, their mouths agape in obscene rictus grins. It’s “The Day of the Locust,” and we, the audience, are the biggest pests, a conceit that’s not only facile and cliched but unearned. (Dominik explored celebrity and fandom with much more insight and stylistic boldness in his 2007 masterpiece “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”) Monroe might have been damaged, but she was so much more than a trope for the kind of revelatory abasement Dominik dishes out. She certainly deserves more than a dumb “Blonde.”
NC-17. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre; also available on Netflix. Contains some sexual material. 167 minutes.