So, I highlighted the trailer. Guess I gotta review it, huh?
I saw someone dub this film Marilyn Monroe: Fire Walk With Me, and that’s quite apt. It doesn’t have the intensity of David Lynch‘s film about a girl trapped in a nightmare on her way towards her inevitable end, but it is a similar path with a heavy arthouse flare to it. Netflix takes extra pains to make sure that everyone knows that this is a fictionalized version of the events of the blonde star’s life. Not being anything of a scholar in the life and times of Marilyn Monroe, I wasn’t thrown by any disconnects from reality because I don’t know the reality. I know her from a handful of performances (Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Clash by Night in particular) and that’s about it. I don’t come into this with any kind of emotional attachment to the woman who died more than twenty years before I was born. I do come in with a massive appreciation for the Kiwi filmmaker Andrew Dominik, though. It’s why I was interested in the film in the first place.
At two hours and forty seven minutes, the film really gives itself the time to cover a lot of Monroe’s life, and it begins with her childhood (Lily Fisher) with her mentally unwell mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) who tells her a fairy tale about her absent father, putting a picture of him over their shared bed, and described his wealth and fame as well as his inability to be around despite their love for each other. Considering Gladys’ obvious state of unwellness including her driving the young Norma Jeane up a mountain while it’s on fire and setting their own apartment ablaze, it’s easy to question the veracity of this portrait of disallowed love, but it’s a formational myth in the life of this Norma Jeane who grows up (Ana de Armas) and tries to enter the industry that she grew up under the shadow of.
With the help of her manager, she creates the image of Marilyn Monroe, and Norma Jeane’s inability to understand who she is, with her private life and public life merging so thoroughly that she can’t tell where Norma Jeane ends and Marilyn Monroe begins, is the central idea of the whole journey. When she goes into a casting session and gets taken advantage of by a producer, is this because Norma Jeane is looking out for her career or because Marilyn Monroe is? When she looks up at the screen, with the written words of her father’s first letter to her ever that she had just received that night still in her head, and she begs the absent father to understand the difference between Norma Jeane, the girl he’s writing to, and the girl singing about how diamonds are her best friend, she is saying it because she needs there to be a difference herself. She wants to be more than just the beautiful bombshell of a movie star, and her personal relationships are all about trying to find someone who can accept her as she is.
The first of three relationships is actually a threesome with Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson (the two actors playing the junior parts look so similar I thought they were supposed to be twins). It’s a relationship all about sex and discovering who she is through pleasure, but as soon as something serious comes along (a pregnancy) the whole thing falls apart (this leads to the abortion sequence, including shots going from in to out). The second relationship is with the unnamed ex-baseball player (Bobby Cannavale who is definitely playing Joe DiMaggio), a relationship born of a shared disdain for the spotlight, but when Marilyn cannot let go of the spotlight, culminating in her famous scene in Billy Wilder‘s The Seven Year Itch with the air from under a grate on the street blowing up her dress, it marks the end of their relationship.
Her happiest moments come with the relationship with Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). Marilyn becomes his Magda, a part he wrote that ties to his own past, a girl who can barely speak English, because Norma Jeane is more than just Marilyn Monroe. Miller is initially dismissive of her because of her image, but after a performance where she bares herself (an earlier film test has a casting director say that she doesn’t act, she just presents her mental issues before the boss admires her behind as she walks away) and a conversation in a diner where Norma Jeane picks up on hidden details in the play, they fall in love. Their time together is the brightest, happiest of Norma Jeane’s life in the movie. That is, until she falls and causes a miscarriage.
It’s a spiral downward from there, focusing heavily on her time on the set of Some Like It Hot where she breaks from filming a scene to scream at Wilder (Ravil Isyanov) because she knows that he’s making fun of her with the script. This is despite the fact that Norma Jeane wants to be separate from Marilyn Monroe. She can’t tell the difference anymore.
The final stretch is where the film gets the most surreal in her final days leading up to her suicide. I wasn’t emotionally caught up in it, but I admired the effort all of the way (as an aside, I find it interesting that I get more invested in the emotional journey of a fictional girl in Laura Palmer than this real woman, but that probably has more to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of both films). The center of the whole film is, of course, Ana de Armas as Monroe, and she gives a strong performance as the lonely, sick woman who tries to balance her ambitions, need for love, and fear of mental illness stemming from her mother. Everything hangs off of her performance, and she handles it well. It’s one of those soul baring things that gets all the accolades, and I can’t say they’re wrong. However, it seems to have been hard for her to massage her native Cuban accent, and I think that somewhat slowed her down a bit in moments that would have been more intense.
I think the film is good, but I struggle to imagine who I would show it to, expecting them to enjoy it. I can see how easily the film is becoming so polarizing. If this were about a girl who had never been a cultural icon, it would have limited its wide appeal and kept the viewings among the more art house centric crowd that seem to gravitate more towards this kind of oppressive viewing experience, though I will say that as the film goes on and gets increasingly depressing, it actually gets funnier too in a very dark way to counterbalance things. For instance, there’s a scene with the 35th president of the United States (Caspar Phillipson) where Marilyn had been telling the secret service agents that her relationship with the president was about more than sex, but the president just forces her into oral sex while absent-mindedly listening to an official phone call while, at the same time, a science fiction movie is playing on the television only showing the moments of eruption of violence. On the one hand, we’re watching a woman who believes she loves the president have her delusions completely shattered and forced into doing something she doesn’t really want, but on the other the television is a comedic counterpoint. It’s the sort of tonal clash that David Lynch manages so well, and it happens here with the same kind of skill.
Again, I have no idea who I would recommend this to. It’s all art house and a descent into suicide. It’s apparently not immensely faithful to the real history. It’s really something else, and the length doesn’t help open it up to new audiences as well.
I admired it, though.