Friday, December 9, 2022

Who Is “Blonde” For?

By the time a talking fetus was on my screen – asking Ana de Armas’ Marilyn Monroe, “You won’t hurt me this time, will you?” – I had to stop “Blonde” for a second and ask, “who was this movie made for?” The controversial book of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates – a self-professed “work of fiction” by the author that has been lambasted over the years by many for allegedly “bastardizing” the already complicated legacy of Monroe – plays pretty fast-and-loose with facts. Hence, it’s not like we didn’t expect Andrew Dominik’s film adaptation to do the same. But there’s a distinct difference between letting our imagination run wild while reading the exasperating events that take place in Oates’ book and being forced to experience writer-director Andrew Dominik’s gory, gaudy, and almost unbearably graphic interpretation of said events. Whoever said that the real world is no match for the horrors we dream up in our own head clearly never saw “Blonde.”

I started this piece by asking “who ‘Blonde‘ was made for,” but anyone who’s seen only a split second of this depressing fever dream of a film already knows the answer: Andrew Dominik is his own audience, and no one else matters. He made his disdain for the mainstream – and critics of his work – quite clear earlier this year in an interview with Screen Daily, stating, “If the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the fucking audience’s problem. It’s not running for public office.” And you know what, if yet another male auteur wants to make yet another “edgy” and esoteric art film to satisfy no one but himself, in most cases, I’d simply say, “have at it.” But when you’re dealing with the life of a person who actually lived – a woman who was already forced to weather so many harrowing hardships in this all-too-short life – you’re playing by a different set of rules. Some delicacy and decency are required. But Andrew Dominik might’ve missed that memo.

And, sure, you can throw a billion biopics at me as examples of films based on real people that “rearranged history” or injected some fiction into their narratives (hell, just look at most “Based on a True Story” movies that have been nominated for or even won Oscars). But “switching some things up” to better fit the flow or structure of a film is far different from making a movie that, save for a few key facts, is essentially entirely fiction. And even worse, we’re not talking about simply changing the dates of when things happened or inventing a fictional “meeting” with another key character in the movie. “Blonde” (both the book and the film) seems to think that Marilyn Monroe didn’t suffer enough at the hands of society – and men, especially – while she was alive, and thus decide to spotlight sexual assaults that never took place, envision abortions that never happened, and completely deceive audiences about the actual conditions of her death.

So, I ask again, “who is ‘Blonde‘ for?” because it’s very apparent right from the start that this sordid saga was made with very little affection or even appreciation for Monroe in mind (nor is Andrew Dominik even “interested in reality,” according to a recent Sight and Sound interview), and that’s what separates “Blonde” from a similar semi-fictional psychological and psychedelic bio-drama like “Spencer.” Director Pablo Larraín and writer Steven Knight (along with star Kristen Stewart) clearly had to fill in some of the blanks on their own when choosing to retell Princess Diana’s “existential crisis” during the Christmas of 1991, when she finally decided to divorce Prince Charles and leave the British royal family. Still, every artistic choice in that film is employed with respect and reverence for who Diana was and all she represented.

Yes, the story doesn’t shy away from her social and personal struggles (her battle with anorexia, for one). It sometimes feels like a horror drama with the imaginative dark imagery that Larraín and co-invent. Still, these moments of madness are separated by scenes showcasing all the soothing love and levity in her life – her emotionally radiant relationship with her sons, her fruitful friendship with her dresser, and so on and so forth – and it ends on an exhilaratingly euphoric high that lets us leave Diana at her happiest: safe and sound with her sons, blissfully unaware of any of the other atrocities that await. None of that matters right now. Larraín lets his camera linger on Diana’s soft smile – her first authentic expression of contentment over the course of the entire film – and that’s because that’s the Diana he wants us to remember, especially those who have loved her so much for so long.

In contrast, Andrew Dominik seems to have forgotten entirely the fans of Marilyn Monroe, whose fascination with this public figure was similarly fervent, and it’s clear as day throughout “Blonde” that there was never a point in the production during which the film was made with them in mind. As writer Christina Newland asks in that aforementioned Sight and Sound interview, why does the movie have to leave out Monroe’s mightiest accomplishments, like when she “formed her own production company, [was] involved in opposing the anti-communist witch-hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, or [fought] against segregation on behalf of Ella Fiztergald” and solely focus on her suffering? In fact, aside from a few brief snippets of scenes from her most famous films (“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the infamous “subway grate scene” in “The Seven Year Itch,” “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in “Some Like It Hot,” etc.), we hardly see any of her acting work either.

And, while I’m all for unconventional biopics that refrain from giving us a Wikipedia-esque synopsis of a subject’s life, cradle-to-grave, what Dominik has replaced these expected beats with is of no substance – not to Marilyn Monroe fans and not to those simply interested in a “behind-the-scenes” story about a starlet’s life in and out of the spotlight. It’s a barrage of non-stop brutality for almost three hours that transforms Marilyn from a person to a punching bag. Worst of all is that what Dominik is saying is nothing new – incessantly reiterating the theme that Norma Jeane Mortenson and Marilyn Monroe were “not the same person” and that Monroe “couldn’t come to terms with this” with all the subtlety of the sledgehammer – and also draining the discussion of Monroe’s ascent to fame and struggles in showbiz of any sort of nuance or subtlety. Marilyn Monroe’s life was not all agony all the time – no one is; we’re all complicated and complex people who live complicated and complex lives – but you wouldn’t know that watching “Blonde.”

And let’s not forget the fact that most of these “brutal” moments in the movie are also almost entirely made up! Look, any movie made about Monroe’s life will have to delve into her chaotic childhood, the issues she had with her star persona, and the abuse she faced at the hands of Joe DiMaggio, among other trials and tribulations. Still, Dominik deliberately avoids adding any “lighter” moments in her life (save for perhaps the start of her relationship with Arthur Miller) or capturing her contributions to the industry to try and balance out this bleakness. He, following Oates’ lead, additionally subjects her to even more suffering, seemingly in an attempt to give his already formally aggressive film some more “gravitas” because we still live in a time in which the industry (and male auteurs, in particular) equate “female trauma” with “art.”

Said fictional suffering includes: Monroe’s mother attempting to kill her by drowning her in a bathtub as a child, Monroe supposedly only getting her start in Hollywood following a sexual assault at the hands of a “Mr. Z,” Monroe being forced into having an abortion so that “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” can start on schedule (while she passes “STOP” signs on the way there, which become our first exposure to “Blonde’s” insidious anti-abortion messaging), Monroe being saddled with debilitating “daddy issues” (that apparently compel her to call her older husbands “daddy” in every sentence she utters), Monroe’s unborn fetus begging her not to kill it, Monroe being forced into another abortion – this time, by JFK, whose men supposedly kidnap her in the night to perform said procedure (and though it’s shot as a dream sequence of sorts, we’re forced to bear witness to her frantic fear all the same, to say nothing of the film’s second POV vagina shot, which is even more grotestque than the first) – and Monroe being given a made-up motivation to kill herself.

Again, I must ask, “who is this film for?” – and, furthermore, “what point did Dominik think he was making?” Did he really think he was showing anyone anything new here? And not just about how the world treated Marilyn, but how the world treats women as a whole? Because any woman who watches this coarse chronicle of the slow demise of Marilyn Monroe’s body and soul can tell you that you’re not treading any new ground here. You made a movie prioritizing Marilyn Monroe’s trauma above all else – going so far as to make even more up and then depict it in the most triggering manner possible – all for what? To tell us that Marilyn had a hard life? To show us how little society actually cares about what happens to women? This isn’t exactly breaking news.

What we’re left with is a movie that not only leaves almost every audience member unsatisfied in some respect but one that simultaneously sullies Marilyn Monroe’s already savaged legacy, especially for those who know next-to-nothing about her life and simply press play on the new splashy biopic on Netflix, unaware that what they’re watching is, for all intents and purposes, a work of fiction. And yet, this doesn’t bother Dominik one bit, who states in the aforementioned Sight and Sound interview that he “[doesn’t] think that matters” because “does anyone care, really?” It’s already been apparent for over half a decade that we’re heading towards a “post-truth” society where everyone can invent their own reality about anyone and anything. No one can tell them otherwise, and here we have a man knowingly misrepresenting the life of an iconic starlet who has already suffered enough – operating from a position of power and privilege that allows him to then broadcast these beliefs to others, as well – and the repercussions haven’t even crossed his mind.

Ultimately, whatever messages about “female trauma” and the industry’s treatment of Marilyn Monroe that Andrew Dominik hoped we’d take from the movie are not the ones we’ll walk away with because they’re nothing we don’t already know. Instead, in the end, “Blonde” simply serves as a dark and dismal reminder that, even in death, a woman’s body is not her own.

Have you seen “Blonde” yet? If so, what did you think? Check out our podcast review here to listen to what the NBP team thinks of it and please let us know your thoughts either in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

Zoe Rose Bryant
Zoe Rose Bryant
Writes for AwardsWatch & Loud & Clear Reviews. Omaha based film critic & Awards Season pundit.

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