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Some Thoughts on Andrew Dominik’s Blonde…

October 5, 2022

By John Corrado

Blonde is director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the 2000 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, which presented a somewhat fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life, and it’s a film that has invoked strong reactions in viewers (and that’s putting it mildly).

I watched Blonde a week ago on Netflix (after toying with the idea of seeing it in theatres at TIFF Bell Lightbox), and gave myself a few days to think about it before sharing my thoughts. And I have so many mixed feelings about Dominik’s expressionistic, nearly three hour quasi-biopic that I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of it as a whole. So think of this more as a collection of thoughts as opposed to a formal, star-rated review.

There are elements of the film that work. Ana de Armas does do a good job in the leading role as Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe, and the musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is quite haunting. But parts of Dominik’s film also feel exploitative. The problem is that the film only really shows Marilyn Monroe’s trauma, and not really any of her achievements. It offers no real reprieve from depicting her abuse and suffering, making it a suffocatingly bleak film to watch.

On a technical level at least, this is an often impressive achievement. Dominik switches between shifting aspect ratios as well as colour and black and white, inspired by classic photos of Marilyn Monroe that he carefully recreates onscreen. The film features slow transitions between scenes, including a sexual escapade that memorably fades into a waterfall. The artifice does work at times, if at other points it feels like too much, as the film unfolds with a somewhat unfocused, episodic narrative structure that more just drifts between moments.

Despite her Cuban accent slipping through in a way that can be distracting at times, de Armas manages to embody the role of Monroe in a way that feels more like interpretation and less like mimicry. This also ties into the main thesis of the film, if you will, which is that Marilyn Monroe wasn’t really a real person, but rather an invention of Norma Jeane; a woman who never really found herself after suffering abuse as a child, growing up without a father and a mother (Julianne Nicholson) who had to be institutionalized, and adopted the stage name to be more desirable.

I think the opening scenes showing the horrific childhood abuse Norma experienced at the hands of her mentally ill mother are among the most punishing. They have a melodramatic feel to them. It’s material that could have been better handled in glimpses or flashbacks, but shown in full feels almost like an assault on the viewer. This really is the problem with Blonde as a whole, though; it doesn’t show the grace notes, allowing her few moments of true happiness and no real agency.

The film simply pummels us with scene after scene of her being degraded and abused, be it verbally, physically, or sexually. In one of the main storylines, she is pressured to get an abortion for her role in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, which will continue to haunt her, including through a CGI fetus (the film has been accused on social media of being “pro-life propaganda,” but it shows her to be a victim of a coerced abortion, which was fundamentally not her choice). She calls all the men in her life “daddy,” and spends the movie searching for her real father.

The film takes us through three main relationships; a throuple that she is in with Charlie Chaplin’s son Cass (Xavier Samuel) and Eddy Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), a toxic relationship with Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) who is only referred to as “the athlete” with his physical abuse kept offscreen, and finally playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, the film’s strongest supporting player). The film also shows her affair with JFK (played by Caspar Phillipson as The President), though doesn’t romanticize it, with her literally being carried by Secret Service agents into JFK’s hotel room to perform a blow job (one of the scenes that surely got the film its NC-17 rating).

Some audiences will surely be mesmerized by the inherent artistry of Dominik’s film, others deeply repulsed, with Blonde at times bordering on and even descending into something that feels more like an exploitation of Norma Jeane’s life, including in its excessive nudity. The historical accuracy of the film, based on a novel that is said to be a work of biographical fiction, only raises further questions. Parts of the film made me nearly stop watching it, but is this visceral response not the point? It’s a portrait of her being used and abused by the Hollywood system and those around it that is meant to provoke; be it rage, sympathy, or a mix of both. But every one of these reactions seems to be a valid one.

I fully understand and respect why some viewers will find it too difficult or disturbing to even engage with Blonde (though the social media trend of attacking those who found merit in the film feels more akin to a moral panic). This is a tough, almost unforgiving viewing experience. It’s not entirely successful as a film, and certainly never easy or enjoyable to watch, but dare I say there are still moments of impact hidden within. I’m actually curious to see what, if any, critical reappraisal it will get in the years to come, once the discourse around it dies down.

At this point in time, though, Blonde in the end feels like a film that is so devoid of hope it leaves us with nothing but a gaping sense of despair, and I’m not entirely sure the usefulness of that in terms of telling Marilyn Monroe’s story. This is ultimately a portrait of her being used and exploited for the pleasure of others until there was nothing left but an empty shell. But is Blonde not just exploiting and using the tragedy of her life all over again? You be the judge.

Blonde is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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