Hotly anticipated and mired in seemingly endless controversy, Andrew Dominik‘s fictionalized Marilyn Monroe biographical psychodrama, Blonde, finally hit Netflix on September 28th after premiering at the 79th Venice International Film Festival and receiving a limited theatrical run in the United States. Before most people had even seen it, the film found itself on the receiving end of a massive backlash – a whirlwind of accusations of exploitation, cruelty, and misogyny. Writing for the New York Times, critic Manohla Dargis called Blonde, “the latest necrophiliac entertainment to exploit her,” while NPR’s Justin Chang dismissed it as “an exercise in cruelty.” This matched the tone of the predictably venomous reaction the film received online, which ranged from tweets decrying it as “one of the most detestable movies ever made,” to relentless review bombing. There was even a Change.org petition – started over a year ago – urging Netflix not to release the film, citing its NC-17 rating and the then-rumored “disgustingly sexually graphic” scenes. Amidst all the outrage, the question of whether or not the film was actually any good seemed to get lost in the shuffle.
Based on Joyce Carol Oates‘ novel of the same name, Dominik’s latest directorial effort purports to take an unflinching look at the (inner) life of the silver screen icon, and it’s admirable that the Australian director behind grizzled works like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly is still willing to push some buttons – a trait that’s increasingly hard to come by in directors. But while the film tackles the flurry of themes that commonly orbit Monroe – an amalgamation of trauma, Hollywood sexism and paranoia – it can’t compensate for a lack of new ideas or insights of its own. The film opens with a young Norma Jeane Mortenson (Lily Fisher) being tormented by her emotionally unstable mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson). Gladys tells Norma Jeane that she’s the daughter of a big movie star, and that the absentee patriarch will one day return to them, a fairly transparent lie. Norma Jeane obsesses over a photo of her supposed father and his absence hangs heavy over the rest of the film, coloring her insecurities, guilt and romantic relationships – she calls her husbands “Daddy” – while also providing an avenue into the Method she would come to embrace. After her mother tries to drown her in the bathtub, she spends the rest of her childhood in an orphanage. Years later, the grown up Norma Jeane (Ana de Armas) finds success as a pin-up model under the stage name “Marilyn Monroe.” Trying to break into the film industry, Marilyn is sexually assaulted by a studio president – one of several devastating episodes she is forced to endure throughout her adult life. As her movie career begins to take off, slowly transforming her from a fledgling actress to a bonafide cultural icon, her life begins falling apart amidst abusive relationships, unsuccessful pregnancies – including a harrowing abortion – self-loathing and substance abuse.
On the surface, Blonde has little in common with the formulaic, predictable filmmaking usually associated with the biopic, even the heavily fictionalized ones. The film is a messy back-and-forth between aspect ratios, color schemes, and all manner of formal tics designed to immerse – or more accurately, imprison – the audience in Marilyn’s crumbling psyche. Hidden behind these artsy affectations, however, is a self-important bludgeoning act that, at almost three hours, not only grows tiring but groan-inducing. Dominik’s approach could almost be characterized as Sadean were it not for the director’s obvious and condescending gestures towards picayune moralism. While de Sade‘s giddily amoral work relishes in its unrestrained, extravagant, well, sadism, Blonde‘s single-minded cruelty instead lands somewhere in the proximity of preachy. The deranged depths of de Sade’s darkly humorous writing have been explored in films like Hiroshi Harada‘s mercilessly bleak semi-animated 1992 curio Midori, and Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s hellish 1975 masterpiece, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. But while Harada viciously lampooned notions of outsider solidarity, and Pasolini plunged himself into the nihilistic depravity at the heart of fascism – in the country that birthed it just a few decades earlier, no less – Dominik, for all of his “uncompromising auteur” posturing in the lead-up to the film’s release, settles for a disappointingly conventional and overly familiar idea: the glitzy Hollywood dream actually has a dark side as well.
Blonde‘s heavy-handed trauma pile on reaches its sad zenith during a particularly difficult scene, where Marilyn is forced to perform oral sex on JFK (played by Caspar Phillipson, his second turn as Kennedy after 2016’s Jackie). While the camera is trained on her shocked expression, her eyes darting from left to right, the image pulls out to reveal the scene being projected on a silver screen, a spellbound audience bearing witness to her suffering. It’s a (rather gimmicky) shot, designed to implicate us in her exploitation, and de Arma’s voiceover adds a meta-layer, as she wonders if she has been cast as the “famous blonde actress” in a softcore porn film, her Cuban accent clearly noticeable for the first time. It’s exploitative, yes, but it’s also oddly self-congratulatory, the director seemingly taking even more pleasure in scolding his audience than he does in degrading his subject. The point seems to be that powerful men use and abuse those less powerful than them, especially women, and that art and media turns us all into spectators – not exactly an illuminating statement in a post-#MeToo world.
It must be said that for all of his juvenile moralizing and edgy, “Isn’t this messed up?” ruminations, Dominik understands American mythology quite well. Just like The Assassination of Jesse James before it, Blonde is as much a study of its time period and specific milieu, as it is about the characters that inhabit it – a fairly common characteristic of historical fiction, a genre that many of the film’s detractors, who accuse Dominik of spreading lies, seem unfamiliar with. The film occasionally taps into the obscure network of Hollywood myth, rumor and conspiracy – a sensibility all but lost in the age of professional debunkers and blind adherence to secular mantras – but fails to come to any new or particularly thorny conclusions, even amputating the infamous CIA murder plot finale of Oates’ novel. Hollywood has always chewed up and spat out naive wannabe-starlets, and writers, filmmakers and musicians as diverse as James Ellroy, Billy Wilder, X, Joan Didion, David Lynch and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have all chronicled the decay behind the glittery facade in far more ruthless, artful and perceptive ways than Dominik does here. And while those artists’ best work adhered to their unique points of view – Ellroy’s reactionary cynicism, Lynch’s warped traditionalism – Dominik’s vision feels compromised, as he undercuts his redundant atrocity exhibition with empty-headed sentimentalism, flattening even temporary domestic bliss into schlocky misery porn, not helped by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis‘ overbearing, sub-Badalamenti score. The filmmaker seems unable to reconcile his eagerness to shock with his eagerness to make a point, and in the process, he transforms Monroe from a complicated symbol of sex, glamour and the gulf between professional success and personal tragedy, into a one-dimensional symbol of female victimization.
There was no way Blonde was ever going to do right by Norma Jeane Mortenson since, like it or not, she, as Marilyn Monroe, is in fact a symbol, a figure of postmodern mythology, a commodity, a brand, and the efforts to defend her honor, which go back to Pauline Kael (“I wish they’d let her die,” she wrote in 1973) insufficiently engage with that fact. Our icons don’t get to be people, especially not those whose legacy is wrapped up in the tragedy of an untimely death. In her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, film critic Molly Haskell puts it aptly: “Our feelings about Marilyn Monroe have been so colored by her death . . . because her suicide, as suicides do, casts a retrospective light on her life . . . Her ‘ending’ gives her a beginning and middle, turns her into a work of art with a message and a meaning.” In the six decades after her death, Norma Jeane has been swallowed by Marilyn, as most of her contemporaries have passed away, and she lives on solely through her public image. She has become, in essence, a character, a canvas for people, and artists in particular, to project their own ideas onto. Andy Warhol‘s 1962 silkscreen Marilyn Diptych appropriated her likeness to contemplate her life and then-recent death, while the Misfits opted for something a lot more crass: “Rotted corpse, sex decay/Breasts all full of slugs,” they sing on “Who Killed Marilyn?” The commentators who have suggested that changing Monroe’s name would’ve been more respectful to the legacy of the Old Hollywood legend, ignore the fact that even arguably more respectful works, like Gus Van Sant‘s hypnotic death knell for a quasi-Kurt Cobain, Last Days, ultimately exploit the image of a real person – Blake, Last Days‘ doomed rock star, sports Cobain’s iconic Christian Roth sunglasses and dirty-blonde strands on the film’s poster – a fact not offset by simply changing its main character’s name.
The film’s treatment of Monroe – severe childhood abuse, torturous scenes of sexual assault, a lurid vaginal POV shot – opens up larger questions about the exploitation and voyeurism inherent to the medium but frankly, the outrage perpetuated by online activists reeks of puritanism and reactionary hostility to art that doesn’t conform to contemporary sensibilities. The cries for censorship, as well as swaths of internet users denouncing the film, while remaining steadfast in their refusal to even see it, reveal a mindset not dissimilar to that of religious groups protesting Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ before its release, except that this wave of pearl-clutchers cloaks its sanctimony in the politically correct language of progressivism. While discomfort with, and discussions about the depiction of sexual assault are valid, the sheer number of people likening the film to porn is very revealing about where a lot of this belligerent criticism is coming from. The continued infantilization of culture has made constructive discourse around transgressive or otherwise challenging art impossible, which is to say nothing of the troubling precedence of pathologizing artists whose work runs counter to that usually championed by the culturati.
Worst of all, this line of criticism misses the mark entirely, since the film’s failings aren’t moral but rather formal and dramatic. Blonde is mind-numbingly one-note, filled with trite finger-wagging about Hollywood’s treatment of women that clashes with its gossipy, Hollywood Babylon-adjacent subject matter. And for every moment of genuine inspiration, like a seamless transition from an operating room to a childhood home engulfed in flames, there is a scene where news footage of missiles and exploding UFOs from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers signify male arousal and an orgasm, respectively. Its flashy formalism and shallow provocations are ultimately in service of nothing since it’s too incurious about both the opaque machinations that govern Hollywood, and Monroe herself, skipping over her transformation from Norma Jeane into Marilyn entirely. It’s a shame really, because in an era dominated by unchallenging, nostalgia-driven and cynically self-referential media, a film like Blonde could be a much-needed breath of fresh air. And while it isn’t the sexist exploitation-fest that many critics have derided it as, its interminable parade of torment lacks insight, nuance, novelty and depth. Ana de Armas’ uncanny performance grasps at some semblance of humanity and meaning but in the end, there is nothing meaningful, beautiful or transcendent about this Marilyn’s life, suffering or death. And after the credits roll, we are treated to one last hollow gesture: a link to a (Netflix-operated) website and a message letting us now that help is available for anyone who’s “struggling.” Hollywood’s ultimate tragedy – reduced to an infomercial for mental health awareness.