Content warning: this piece discusses depictions of sexual assault, abortion, drug abuse, domestic abuse, and suicide.
At this point, there isn’t a lot to say about Blonde that hasn’t already been said. Andrew Dominik’s heavily fictionalized ‘biopic’ of Marilyn Monroe, based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name, has been controversial since its first teaser trailer- and for good reason. From the film’s depiction of sexual assault and abortion, to its NC-17 rating, to Dominik’s highly publicized comments calling Gentleman Prefer Blondes a film about “well-dressed whores,” there’s been a lot to discuss. And it’s true that this movie is tasteless in the extreme – it’s true that it takes an almost necrophilic pleasure in capitalizing on a dead woman’s misery. But on an even more basic level, Blonde– a movie based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and expected by some to sweep the awards circuit come winter- just fails as a movie.
Part of this failure lies in just how elaborate Blonde is, which is to say the filmmakers make more choices in three hours than I’ve ever made in my entire life. Around one out of every five are successful. Some choices are inventive and meaningful; for example, the reoccurring fire motif. At the beginning of the movie, Marilyn’s mother (Julianne Nicholson) drives them both into an active wildfire in a foiled attempt to see Marilyn’s absent father (Tygh Runyan). When Marilyn (Ana de Armas) begins to panic as an adult, the frame literally begins to crumble and burn around her, in a clear and successful reference to her childhood trauma. There’s also the deep fidelity to, if not the life of Marilyn Monroe, then certainly the aesthetic. The filmmakers went to great lengths to recreate actual pictures of Monroe, which is why the film shifts from black-and-white to color and why it switches aspect ratios every scene or so.
Other decisions are not as meaningful. Critics have generally lauded Dominik’s stylization, but some of it is so genuinely ridiculous or off-putting that it clashes with the deeply serious tone of the movie. There’s a moment early on in the movie where a picture of Marilyn’s absent father turns to her, like a Freudian Big Mouth Billy Bass, and tells her that she’ll see him soon. They choose to show that Marilyn is overwhelmed by a crowd of screaming fans by stretching their mouths wide in editing in a way not dissimilar to how middle school girls use Photo Booth in the back of class when they’re bored. And of course, there’s the infamous scene of Marilyn’s fetus talking to her, which features exactly thirty seconds of baby footage that they reuse every time Marilyn gets pregnant, and a voiceover from what I would assume is a very confused child actor. Netflix famously hired an editor “to curb the excesses of the movie!” What could it have possibly looked like before?
But what are these choices in service of? Blonde is many things, but it’s not subtle, and it’s obvious what it’s trying to do. It has two main themes- that Marilyn, the glamorous star, and Norma Jean, a traumatized girl, are two incompatible people, and that childhood trauma impacts adults later in life. Unfortunately, I would argue that neither of these points has any more depth than their one-sentence description.
The theme of duality in Marilyn’s life between her persona and her actual self is probably a more sympathetic interpretation of the film than understanding it as purely a biopic or an exploration of trauma. That’s certainly how de Armas frames it in interviews, where she describes how she and the crew left a card on Monroe’s grave, representative of their commitment to “the side of the story we were going to tell — the story of Norma Jean, the person behind this character, Marilyn Monroe. Who was she really?” But that’s an interpretation sabotaged by the very nature and medium of the film. Blonde is deeply and obviously fictionalized, to a point where no member of the audience could watch it and think that it was completely accurate. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a Marilyn Monroe scholar, but even I’m aware that she was never in a throuple with Charlie Chaplain’s son nor was she abducted by the FBI (both actual plotlines in this movie). This inherently isn’t an issue- the film is postmodern, it’s tackling the idea rather than the reality of Monroe. But if the theme is that there is one true version of Monroe, that the cultural conception of her is just a performance? It’s not going to work when every character, real, fake, faithful to history, or invented whole cloth, is equally performed. The delineation the film painstakingly draws attention to again and again between Norma Jean the person and Marilyn Monroe the character can’t be as significant as it wants to be when it’s so clear that both personas are posthumous constructions of an uninvolved party. Norma Jeane isn’t any more real than Marilyn is- that’s the point of this sort of adaptation!
As for its implications regarding childhood trauma, I would argue that the film’s lack of subtlety really works to its detriment here. Dominik has described the film as having a “lot of psychological processes that are dramatized in Blonde, a lot of Lacanian and Freudian ideas.” This is just a pseudo-intellectual way to say that Dominik has not read or understood any psychological research published in the last sixty years. And it shows! Marilyn has daddy issues. She was abandoned by her father and now she has an Electra complex. This is essentially all the nuance there is to her character. A picture of her father speaks to her. Every time she has a love interest, she compares them to her father. She calls both her husbands “daddy” (this is where Ana de Armas’s acting skills really shine in my opinion, because I cannot imagine calling fictional Joe DiMaggio “daddy” with any degree of seriousness). In a scene that really epitomizes the delicate and considerate approach Blonde takes toward its subject, there’s a montage of Marilyn’s early pinup shots soundtracked by a crooning lounge singer singing “every baby needs a da-da-daddy.” Wow. I wonder what it could mean.
My problem isn’t necessarily that she has daddy issues- God knows this woman has every right to have as many issues as she wants. It’s that a film that is supposed to be an introspective psychodrama about the internal struggles of one of the most famous actresses in history boils her entire personality down to a need for male validation, and, worse, does it badly!
I would argue that the most compelling evidence for just how terribly the film imparts its messages is how the audience has reacted to it. Because critics and the general public alike haven’t seen it as a compelling take on childhood trauma. They haven’t seen it as a revelation on Monroe’s innermost self. They’ve seen it for what it is: a never-ending ouroboros of violence and pain masquerading as profound. Dominik describes Blonde as a film that’s meant to “leave you shaking. Like an orphaned rhesus monkey in the snow.” After three hours of this, I’m not shaking, I’m just tired.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to approach the subject matter in this film with delicacy. This has been difficult because the film treats these subjects with all the care and consideration of a man throwing handfuls of spaghetti at a fan. That’s honestly what a lot of the inclusions feel like- as though the filmmakers just thought “let’s sprinkle in some abortion for flavor.”
As a quick look into what this watching experience is like, the first sexual assault takes place less than twenty minutes into the movie. By this point, Marilyn’s already been driven into an active wildfire, had her mother try to drown her and subsequently get sent to a mental hospital, and been abandoned at an orphanage. There’s already been full-frontal female nudity twice. But it didn’t become clear how fetishized Monroe’s pain is until I looked back at the movie as a whole and realized every single time something traumatic happens to Marilyn, either she or another woman are naked. Her mom tries to kill her? Her mom’s naked. Her husband hits her? She’s topless. She commits suicide? She’s naked there, too.
This sense of sliminess is only enhanced by the film being produced by Brad Pitt’s entertainment company, Plan B Films (which, considering the film’s views on abortion, is already an unfortunate name) while one of its more vocal defenders is Casey Affleck. Pitt is currently being sued by his ex-wife for allegedly abusing her and their children, while Affleck infamously settled two sexual harassment lawsuits out of court.
The movie’s handling of abortion is similarly thoughtless- and I do mean literally thoughtless, because Dominik seemed genuinely surprised that his graphic depictions of forced abortion are controversial, saying “no one would have given a s–t about that if I’d made the movie in 2008, and probably no one’s going to care about it in four years’ time.” The political implications of these scenes have already been discussed in great detail, including in a formal statement condemning the film from Planned Parenthood, so I will only add one complaint to this discourse: I question the wisdom of the soundtrack that plays in the aftermath to Marilyn’s first traumatic abortion. There has to have been a better choice than “Bye, Bye Baby.”
My point is not that it’s inherently wrong to include these things or that the film needs to have a certain moral imperative- I’m not coming to Andrew Dominik for life advice. But if a film is going to include topics this serious, that affect real people, it should expect some level of criticism if there isn’t a point to their inclusion. It’s hard to make a film about Marilyn Monroe that doesn’t include suffering- she lived a short and sad life- but it doesn’t come to any meaning in Blonde, so instead it seems to be there for no reason other than sick titillation.
There’s this idea that art necessitates suffering. It’s an idea that this film- which is essentially a conveyor belt of tragedy- clearly ascribes to its own detriment. I can only hope that the next time these filmmakers seek to make ‘art,’ the suffering they use is their own.