“Nobody really knows what the fuck happened. So it’s all fiction anyway, in my opinion.” This is what Andrew Dominik said about his thought process before directing his new film Blonde, a fictionalised account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. The pop culture icon was born in 1926 and sadly passed away in 1962 at the age of 36 – leaving Dominik’s interpretation as nothing more than a fable of cruelty, pain and exploitation. Ben Nathan reviews.
Let us start with some positive aspects of the movie, with the most obvious example being Ana de Armas. After acclaimed turns in films such as Knives Out (2019) and No Time to Die (2021), she is at the helm here as Monroe. She gives a mesmerising performance, capturing the essence of Norma Jeane and at times looking uncannily like her, despite her native Cuban accent at times appearing in her speech. The cinematography by Chayse Irvin is fantastic throughout with the black and white and colour schemes used appropriately to evoke the style and glamour of the 1950s. Iconic images of Monroe’s career are recreated in a wonderful way, nicely paying homage to some of her films. Whilst admirably ambitious, the decision to shoot with different and changing aspect ratios throughout the runtime felt distorted and kept taking you out of the film.
The execution is messy, the commentary on Monroe and the story they were trying to tell is never really defined
The idea of images from Monroe’s career is important to note when trying to understand and dissect this film. Dominik stated he’s ‘not interested in reality; I’m interested in the images. So I selected every image of Marilyn I could find and then tried to stage scenes around those images’. Making a movie about the image of a star and the horrors that come with it makes for a great potential character study. But when dealing with a real life person, it’s shallow to just look at the images of them and lacks nuance when depicting a real person. Dominik takes these images and uses them as vehicles to exploit Monroe in truly gratuitous ways. From attempted drowning to rape to forced abortion, we see a continuous trajectory of tragedy and abuse experienced by Marilyn usually at the hands of powerful industry men. However, beyond an abusive encounter during her childhood with her mother, we never really see where Marilyn is coming from; there is no explanation to how she feels after experiencing this abuse, making her bouts with addiction and depression seem unrealistic and a vehicle to portraying the struggling female star. This subsequently leads to a lack of substance for this movie and some contradictory storytelling. Dominik attempts to depict her from a perspective where we can ‘see’ and not ‘watch’ her, but shoots her in a very voyeuristic way and so contributes to the exploitation. She is sexy, breathy, and beautiful, but there are many scenes in which she is naked or crying, sometimes both, which have nothing to do with the story itself.
The fictional nature of this film and its source material, suggests they could have taken a creative route and invented a brand new character to provide a commentary on the image of a star, but the decision was made to exploit someone who has been exploited for years. It’s baffling why Dominik did this, but I imagine it has something to do with the amount of publicity it would get because we’re looking at Marilyn Monroe, and he was right. When released, the film shot to number 1 on Netflix.
The continual scene after scene of Norma being abused and enduring something tragic creates a lack of storytelling. The storyline, with its comments on exploitation of Marilyn Monroe, teeters on the boundary of contributing to exploitation itself. So besides it being cruel and uncomfortable, the film also felt boring as the story never went anywhere, making its almost three hour runtime tedious and an effort to sit through. The tagline of this film ‘watched by all, seen by none’ was not satisfyingly explored, and the message I got from the film was Norma longing for her father. This was characterised by the emphasis on her desire to find her real father at both the beginning and end of the film, as well as her daddy issues throughout (she calls all her husband’s daddy; it’s once again uncomfortable). It makes the execution of the film messy; the commentary on Monroe and the story they were trying to tell is never really defined.
In the plethora of Marilyn Monroe depictions we’ve had over the years, this one will be forgotten, and it should be
Blonde is ultimately an ambitious attempt to provide commentary on the horrors and downsides of stardom by looking at the image of Marilyn Monroe, reliant on iconic visuals from Monroe’s career bought to life by de Armas’ luminous performance. But whatever this movie is trying to do, it doesn’t prove anything more about the fact she suffered throughout her life. We already knew that. There are hundreds of resources that are easily accessible as a means to learn about her life, as well as the actual films she appeared in. To me, that’s a more honourable way to understand her legacy, rather than exploiting her time and time again for entertainment purposes. In the plethora of Marilyn Monroe depictions we’ve had over the years, this one will be forgotten, and it should be.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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