Even if “Blonde,” written and directed by Andrew Dominik, had offered a sympathetic and insightful take on Marilyn Monroe’s private life, it would have been a cinematic disaster. The film is ridiculously vulgar – Monroe’s story as if channeled through Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The character endures a crushing series of relentless torments that, far from instilling fear and pity, reflect a particular kind of directorial sadism. In an effort to decry the suffering of the protagonist, “Blonde” wallows in it. He portrays Monroe as the plaything of his time, his environment and his destiny, making her the filmmaker’s plaything. The very subject of the film is the distortion of Monroe’s personality and artistry by Hollywood studio executives and artists; in order to tell this story, Dominik reproduces it in practice.
“Blonde”, adapted from the eponymous novel by Joyce Carol Oates, has only one idea: that, throughout her life, Monroe has been victimized. Child Norma Jeane Mortenson (played by Lily Fisher) is the victim of her father, who never wanted her; his mother (Julianne Nicholson), who suffers from mental illness; neighbors who deliver her to an orphanage. As a young woman, she fell victim to photographers who took nude photos of her. As Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas), she falls victim to a studio boss, Mr. Z (David Warshofsky), who rapes her and then rewards her with roles; of an agent who fabricates her personality and forces her to conform to it; producers and directors who underpay her and stereotype her as sexy and stupid; of her two lovers in a trio, who use and abuse her confidences. She is the victim of her two husbands during her glory years: Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who wants her not to work, is fiercely jealous and physically violent; and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), who vamps her for her work. She is sexually assaulted by President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson); she is abused by the Secret Service on her behalf. (The film does not name DiMaggio or Kennedy but identifies them unambiguously by their traits and roles in Monroe’s life.)
The paparazzi and the press interfere in his private life. Her adoring fans are slobbery perverts who demand her sensuality on screen and her grateful adoration in public appearances. They confuse her Marilyn Monroe persona with herself, even though she considers it a pure product for public consumption, having little to do with her real persona. The film’s iconic moment shows her looking at a picture of herself – of Marilyn Monroe – in a magazine and saying, “She’s pretty, but that’s not me.” Yet the film never comes close to suggesting who, indeed, the real person is.
The film casts Marilyn as a thrillingly talented actress who, long before her experience with the Actors Studio, delves deep into personal experience and emotional memory to deliver performances of shocking intensity. It also indicates that Hollywood offers few outlets for this art and instead wedges her into roles centered on her sexual attractiveness. He portrays her as a cultured, thoughtful, and insightful actress whose artistic ideal and dream remain theater, and in the film’s best scene, she explains why. On her first date with DiMaggio, she tells him that she wants to leave Hollywood for New York, study acting, learn to be a great actress, and do theater (especially Chekhov), because acting in cinema is is “cut cut cut.” She adds, “It’s a puzzle, but you didn’t put the pieces together.” It’s true that acting in film and on stage are completely different, and those who are good at one aren’t necessarily well suited to the other. “Blonde” does not display the difference but simply affirms it; the film only winks and nods in the general direction of what Marilyn could have accomplished on stage.
Films can be “cut cut cut” well, and Dominik inflicts some particularly nasty films on the character of Marilyn. It omits what should have been a privileged moment of theatrical bravery, during Marilyn’s first class at the Actors Studio, where she went on stage to read the lead role in a play by Miller, who looks there skeptically, doubting of the Hollywood diva’s ability to play the complex role to her satisfaction. Instead, she elicits wild applause from her classmates and stunned admiration and tears of emotion from Miller. But this performance itself? Not a second is shown.
There’s nothing about Monroe’s actual politics, including her disregard for the press and the studio for marrying Miller (who was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about his former ties to the Communist Party), his conversion to Judaism and his own activism (including against nuclear weapons). There is nothing about the control Monroe gained over her own career by creating a production company in order to choose and develop her own projects; there’s nothing about her early enthusiasm for movies or her discovery of modeling. (The film shifts from the arrival of infant Norma Jeane at an orphanage to a quick montage of photos of the teenager in magazines.) There is nothing about her efforts to escape poverty and drudgery. , his earnest and thoughtful efforts to develop his career; not a word about Monroe’s extremely hard work as an actress, or her obsessive addiction, for seven or eight years, to her acting coach Natasha Lytess. In short, anything to do with Monroe’s dedication to her art and attention to her business is relegated to the slimmest of margins.
The film emphasizes, through a handful of scenes, that the character of Marilyn is an intelligent and perceptive actor, but “Blonde” reduces to an indicative and forensic minimum the scenes in which she expresses pointed ideas and insightful thoughts. For example, Marilyn says, on her way to her catastrophic visit to JFK in a hotel room, that there is nothing sexual in their relationship. But what happened between them in the encounters before the one in which he attacks her is completely missing. If she had a social life outside of her relationships with men, be it Kennedy, DiMaggio, Miller, or a pair of lovers – Charlie Chaplin, Jr. (Xavier Samuel), and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. ( Evan Williams), with whom she is shown in a threesome – Dominik is not interested in it.
The problem is not just what Dominik doesn’t imagine, but what he does. He directs as if he were defining poetry as using ten vague words where three clear words would suffice, and then he transfers that misconception to pictures. In order to approximate a sense of subjectivity, of Marilyn’s states of mind, it relies on blurry images (but not to the point where they are truly obscure), a soundtrack that submerges the voices in the aquatic darkness (but not completely), slow-motion scenes to emphasize feelings without developing them, a palette that oscillates between color and black and white (his life sometimes looks like a movie to him, understand?).
But such floppy approximations are trivial alongside Dominik’s more garish and demonstrative tricks. When Marilyn gets pregnant, it’s through one of the most sophomoric effects I’ve ever seen. She spends an evening outside with the two juniors, talking about astrology while looking at a sky full of stars that start moving and then turn into scribbled semen. Her fetus is then shown in the womb, and that fetus returns to the film repeatedly, in CGI fetus craziness that ultimately involves him talking to her. Marilyn has an abortion, in order to play in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”; it is traumatic, as is a subsequent miscarriage and another subsequent, vaguely suggested abortion. Through all these episodes, the search for emotion and subjectivity is done in a crude and ruthless way. A view up and out, from the perspective of Marilyn’s vagina towards the abortionist, evokes Dominik’s own violation and abuse of the character’s body. Amid such grotesqueness and vulgarity, de Armas’ single performance, energetic and nuanced, lends the film a modicum of dignity.
Other such effects and gimmicks throughout the film trivialize its ostensible import and make its dark torment ridiculous. For example, when Kennedy enters Marilyn’s mouth, her bedroom television shows a clip of a rocket taking off and shots (apparently taken from “Earth vs. Flying Saucers”) in which an alien spaceship explodes against the Washington Monument and the Capitol. . Marilyn’s lifelong quest for her father culminates when his face – the face of the man her mother called her father – is projected into the sky at the moment of his death. When Marilyn’s songs from her movies are inserted in the soundtrack, they are the ones that include the word “dad”, as in “Ladies of the Chorus” and “baby”, in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”. You have to hand it to Dominik: He not only surpasses the ostensibly crass showmen of classic Hollywood in overt artistic ambition, but also in cheap feeling, brazen lack of taste, and sexual exploitation. ♦