Film reviews: Blonde | Flux Gourmet

Based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, Blonde is a sometimes beautiful, sometimes tacky and sometimes wacky portrait of Marilyn Monroe, writes Alistair Harkness
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde PIC: Netflix © 2022Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde PIC: Netflix © 2022
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Blonde PIC: Netflix © 2022

Blonde (18) **

Flux Gourmet (18) ****

Having kicked off his career with the scabrously funny Chopper and belatedly followed it up with the artful Brad Pitt western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik is no stranger to rooted-in-reality films that explore the dark, violent side of celebrity. With Blonde, though, he takes that interest to an indulgent extreme. Re-imagining the life of Marilyn Monroe as a somewhat abstract Freudian nightmare full of sex and suffering and hallucinatory images, the film doesn’t present itself as a biopic in the traditional sense. Like the acclaimed Joyce Carol Oates novel from which Dominik has adapted his script, it uses the imagery, mythology and some of the biographical and historical details of Monroe’s life and times as a jumping off point for a sensationalist, sometimes beautiful, sometimes tacky, sometimes wacky portrait of the birth of modern celebrity.

Starring Ana de Armas (No Time to Die) as Marilyn, the film is certainly a full-on assault on the senses. Whether it’s switching between different aspect ratios, jumping between stark black-and-white and vivid technicolour, or bringing to life famous photoshoots or creating deepfake clips of de Armas in Monroe’s most beloved movies, the film’s chaotic structure feels on the surface like a radical way of depicting her as someone overwhelmed and disconnected from her studio-constructed image. But after almost three hours of this it never really gets beyond the Candle in the Wind clichés Elton John sang about in his original recording of his Marilyn-inspired song of the same name.

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That maudlin ballad is of course now more associated with Princess Diana, another tragic blonde victim of the celebrity age whose life and death have become national obsessions. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that like last year’s brilliant Spencer, Blonde comes off as a bit of a horror movie riff, a garish amalgam of David Lynch’s schizophrenic Hollywood fairytale Mulholland Drive and the patriarchal gaslighting terror of Roman Polanski’s satanic-themed Rosemary’s Baby. In Blonde, however, the devilish men in Marilyn’s world conspire to prevent her from having a child, with the aftermath of one enforced abortion – chillingly rendered with night-vision cameras – becoming one of the film’s most disturbing and effective scenes.

Sadly the film can’t help itself from reducing Monroe’s life to her reproductive heartaches. Her various abortions and miscarriages are used to underscore the tragedy of a woman whose mentally unstable mother we see trying to drown her as a child and whose obsession with the mysterious father she never knew becomes the salve she thinks will heal her cracked psyche. In a severe taste lapse, or perhaps just paying weird tribute the star child in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dominik not only has Marilyn repeatedly converse with a late-stage foetus whenever she falls pregnant, he also feels the need to deploy more special effects to give us trippy point-of-view shots of these dead foetuses exiting Marilyn’s body, as if her cervix is the star gate at the end of the aforementioned Kubrick sci-fi classic.

But there are tawdry taste lapses throughout (check the scene with JFK) and more than once Dominik’s camera alights on a graphic image of Marilyn’s pristine white underwear being forcibly removed by a studio executive so that he – Dominik – can later make a crass connection between her violent start in the film business and the iconic image of her billowing white dress rising up over her underwear in The Seven Year Itch. Though there’s certainly a valid connection to be made between behind-the-scenes abuse and the way misogyny is codified onscreen, ironising the exploitation of women is a tricky thing to pull off in a movie that frequently objectifies its own rising star. For her part, de Armas gives everything she’s got in performance that’s simultaneously fearless and fragile. But she’s also limited by the film’s disinterest in depicting Marilyn as anything other than a victim. Even when it occasionally manages to subtly decry the double standards of the industry by showing how Monroe’s devotion to the still-nascent Method acting style was dismissed as a sign of mental illness, Blonde doesn’t provide enough of a counterpoint to show how savvy a performer she really was. Consequently de Armas is stuck playing Marilyn as a mentally distressed empty vessel, a construct through which an abused little girl called Norma Jeane Baker was dragged into the celebrity maelstrom and left to fend for herself.

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe & Adrien Brody as The Playwright in Blonde PIC: Netflix © 2022Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe & Adrien Brody as The Playwright in Blonde PIC: Netflix © 2022
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe & Adrien Brody as The Playwright in Blonde PIC: Netflix © 2022

Even by the twisted standards of Peter Strickland past work, his latest film Flux Gourmet is a little outré. A bizarro tale of music, food and creative tension, it stars Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed as Elle di Elle, the uncompromising leader of a band of “sonic caterers" – performance artists who make avant-garde music from food. When the band – who can’t decide on a name – take up a residency in an artists' retreat, its owner and patron Jan Stevens (drily played by Gwendoline Christie) becomes a source of anxiety as she attempts to exert her influence. Observing from the outside is Stone (Makis Papadimitriou), a “hack writer” hired by Jan to document the process but whose severe flatulence gradually draws him into the heart of the conflict. What emerges is a knowingly pretentious and frequently funny exploration of the creative process from a filmmaker who sees the world like no-one else.

Blonde is on selected release now and streams on Netflix from 28 September; Flux Gourmet is cinemas and on digital demand from Curzon Home Cinema from 30 September.

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