Directed by Andrew Dominik
Review by Iva Apostolova
Blonde was one of this fall’s most anticipated movies. Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, who also co-wrote the screenplay with New Zealand director Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), the movie is advertised as a fictional biopic of Marilyn Monroe. Along with rising Cuban-American star Ana de Armas in the title role, it features some heavy hitters like Adrian Brody as Arthur Miller, Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio, and Xavier Samuel as Cass Chaplin.
However, despite the hype, it did not last more than a couple of weeks in theatres, and it drew the ire of the LA social elite. Both critics and viewers condemned it as another example of Hollywood’s sick obsessions with victimhood, particularly that of women working in the industry. Critics called it exploitative and slanderous, especially given that neither Marilyn Monroe nor her (nonexistent) descendants can defend her or set the record straight. Even socialites like Emily Ratajkowski (mostly known for her skimpy outfits and hangouts with the Kardashians) felt outraged that a movie like Blonde is being produced in the post #MeToo era. The negative buzz grew so loud that Oates had to step in and publicly defend Dominik’s adaptation of her book.
Given the reputation that preceded it, I tried to watch the movie with as unbiased an eye as I could muster. Here are my two cents. First, the movie is almost three hours long, and I am not sure I could’ve managed it in one sitting in a movie theatre. I watched it in three installments, giving myself room to breathe in between. Let’s just say that it’s not an easy movie to watch. As Oates herself puts it, Blonde is definitely not for the faint of heart.
But in my books, when a movie challenges a viewer from the get-go, it’s a sign that it is perhaps worth considering on its own merit. Ana de Armas, who in real life has a noticeable Cuban accent, is not only breathtakingly beautiful but also sounds remarkably like Marilyn Monroe. I could’ve probably done without her being half naked for most of the second half of the movie, but she truly delivers.
I can certainly understand the critics’ complaints about the movie’s fixation on Marilyn’s vulnerability at the expense of her business savvy. The latter is the focal point of recent documentaries and books – Marilyn Monroe: Living Blonde is just one example. Instead, Blonde presents the Hollywood bombshell as a fractured, deeply traumatized and troubled woman who was manhandled, literally, for most of her life – in the movie, Norma Jean and Marilyn talk to one another with Norma often trying to get away from Marilyn. The nudity, the close-ups of Marilyn’s cervix and uterus, the conversations that Norma/Marilyn has with her subsequently aborted fetus may all prove too much for some or be considered unnecessarily disturbing. But the viewer will do well to remember that the movie is, above all, an artistic interpretation of Monroe’s inner life, not a biopic per se.
The first clue is the directorial decision to alternate black and white with colour in the construction of the individual scenes. It’s not that the movie is not concerned with the facts; rather, it has chosen to treat them symbolically in weaving the storyline around the inner life of Marilyn Monroe, the actress, the entertainer, the woman, the little girl. Norma/Marilyn appears to the viewer as the ultimate victim, naked and helpless not because she was necessarily a victim in real life but because it is, after all, a story about childhood trauma, untreated and unrepaired. As I see it, Blonde is a symbolic psychological interpretation of the life of a little girl who grows up without a father for whom she seems never to stop searching (in the movie, Marilyn calls her husband “daddy”) and who is eventually abandoned by her abusive and mentally ill mother, then failed by everyone else in her life. All the conversations of grown up Norma/Marilyn and all the decisions she makes are interpreted and re-interpreted through the lens of this trauma, hence the brutality of some of the scenes. In that sense, the movie neither glorifies nor vilifies Marilyn Monroe; it just peeks behind the curtains of her public persona.
I find that Blonde is as exploitative as Blue Velvet, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Piano Teacher or Spencer. And while art has always been and will most likely continue to be politicized, perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, art has its own standards of interpretation, which most certainly include the artist’s intention for it.
Running time: 2h 47m
Available on Netflix and in select theatres
Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College.