Gentlemen Prefer the Blondes on Screen — ‘Blonde’ Review
It’s been a long time coming for Blonde. Director and writer Andrew Dominik’s latest film, released by Netflix, has a production history going back to the beginning of the previous decade. An adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalized biographical novel of the same name, Blonde has been released to much fanfare and heated debate.
A sizable amount of the criticism Blonde has received is linked to its weakness in being an adequate biopic for Marilyn Monroe. If the film wanted to do her and her life story justice, these critics say, the film should give us a holistic view of that life. It is limiting to not include the joys of her friendships, the progress of her social justice, or her genuine intellectual development in equal measure to her life’s low points. However, Dominik’s script is one of tortuously consistent suffering; Blonde is a Monroe film completely uninterested in any moment of happiness or joy in her life.
However, I do not think this should be a point of contention. Rather, In watching Blonde, the emerging question is not whether Dominik’s film works as the definitive narrative of Monroe’s life. It does not. Rather, the question is whether Blonde can take its own thesis, that femininity is often thrown aside, disrespected and taken advantage of (with Monroe as an embodiment of femininity itself), and craft a story that is adequately able to convey the relationship between Marilyn's suffering and the experience of womanhood in general. As I will argue, the film itself may be guilty of the very crimes it accuses society of.
This is not to say that the prior criticism, that the film is degrading and avoids Monroe's happiness in err, is invalid or should be tossed aside as a misread of the film. Dominik’s screenplay, as well as the Joyce Carol Oates novel it is based on, narrows the experience down, whether that experience is specifically the personal story of Monroe or the dynamic general existence of general femininity. When critics call out the film for glorifying female suffering, they allude to this basic theory. Dominik tries to reduce a complex existence to its lowest moments, believing that those moments are definitive of the feminine experience as a whole. In a recent interview with Sight and Sound, Dominik said about his iconic character, “She killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing. It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength.” Indeed the film’s focus coincides with its director’s narrative priority.
And yet, one struggles to reduce the film to its key thematic fault. In terms of raw creativity, primarily the stunning work by director of photography Chayse Irvin, Blonde is constantly jaw-dropping. Switches from color to black-and-white, rampant adjustments in its aspect ratio; Irvin has loaded the film with aesthetic choices much bolder than most. Some of the frames are stark, brutal compositions that aggressively convey the violence of the film’s world.
The fact that the filmmaking is hardly realistic is, of course, not an issue in itself. Blonde is a movie about movies, a movie star in particular. It would be only natural to create a film whose aesthetic is deeply removed from reality or realism as well. And while celebrity is not the most important (and certainly not the most interesting or original) theme the film grapples with, the interplay between who is Marilyn Monroe and who is Norma Jean Baker (her birth name and non-Hollywood personality) certainly is at the thematic forefront. A deeply engrossed Ana De Armas is fantastic with the iconic elements of Monroe, and yet moments of her native Cuban accent shine through. While watching one comes to believe this is part of the point, a perhaps self-referential moment toward that exact interplay between screen persona and real-life personality. Monroe is told in the film that she is meant to be seen. Only through viewing herself outside of herself does she find Hollywood success. Does de Armas intentionally communicate this to us about her own experience through that breaking of her voice?
The removal of Monroe from Norma Jean highlights our collective worship of the former and neglect of the latter. One gets the sense that the men in her life, serving as different checkpoints in her life, have the same experience. The playwright, unnamed but thinly veiled as Arthur Miller, falls madly in love with her, but only after a performance where she played his first crush. To him, Monroe isn’t real, and neither is Norma Jean. They both are relegated to be symbols of other people, robbing them of their own individuality. While Miller is the gentlest and most maintainable of the main romances in her life (contrasted with the violent ex-athlete/Joe DiMaggio character, the adventure-seeking yet equally broken and unstable Cass and Eddy or the emotionally disinterested and graphic president/John F. Kennedy relationship) he too struggles with the question that the film turns towards us: are we wrong for worshiping a caricature in place of the real person? Do we collectively perceive Monroe in the same way as her lovers?
Keeping these themes in mind, the first victim of such misassociations is the director himself. As much as this is meant to be a film about the “real Norma,” the film can’t help but struggle with the experience of the real person. Many of the complexities particularly about Norma Jean, as opposed to her identity as Marilyn, are haphazard and awkward. Following an abortion (one that she was coerced and forced into having), Norma Jean hears the baby’s voice speaking to her when she gets pregnant again, digging into her feelings of guilt and shame that came from her earlier procedure. Earlier on, in her youth, her mother points to an image of who is claimed to be Norma’s father, a Hollywood star. He often appears on-screen in bizarre instances, hardly as effective as seeing a fully-made Marilyn cry while reading his letters while he remains off-screen. Dominik can’t help but focus his efforts on Norma Jean’s relationship with Marilyn as opposed to Norma’s personal dynamics. (Although an exception is to be made regarding her moving scenes with her mother as she grows into adulthood.)
Blonde is a worthwhile watch, no doubt, but often for reasons beyond the filmmaker’s intent. The filmmaking is stellar and expressive, while de Armas is captivating as the lead. Where it becomes fascinating is in the disconnect between the filmmaker and his film, where the film’s insistence on her suffering and degradation meets a filmmaker obsessed with furthering that suffering and degradation. Dominik has attempted to make a film that shows how Marilyn Monroe suffered, was preyed upon and beaten down, a person whose suicide “is the most important thing.” The baseball player, the playwright, the president and the director are all archetypes of suppressing Norma Jean Baker into a bruised and torn Marilyn Monroe. Whether we, too, are guilty of the same crime remains unresolved.
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Photo Caption: Marilyn Monroe sketch
Photo Credit: Pixabay