Synopsis: The life and times of Norma Jeane Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas).
Spoilers for Blonde abound.
1. Let’s get this out of the way. Blonde, like its source material (the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same name published in 2000) has next to no basis in reality. It takes tremendous liberties with the events of Marilyn Monroe’s life, radically reinterpreting some of them and in some extreme cases, spinning them out of whole cloth. This is not, nor should it be, a dealbreaker. Legendary director, documentarian, and shrug-offer of insignificant bullets Werner Herzog famously coined the term ‘ecstatic truth’, defined as a ‘kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual’. The idea here is rather than hewing closely to vulgar ‘reality’, art can achieve a deeper truth ‘through fabrication and imagination and stylization’, reaching a level of truth that he termed ‘poetic’. Furthermore, with Marilyn Monroe being such a global icon, any fictional treatment of her life should be granted latitude to stray away from the facts if it allows for a pursuit of a greater meaning. A drag performance of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ or Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn are all part of the Marilyn Monroe mythos as much as any exhaustively researched biography. So yes, Blonde is far from being an ‘accurate’ retelling of Monroe’s biography, but I must categorically state that it does Blonde a major disservice to say that this makes it a bad film.
Besides, why would you say that when Blonde gives you so many other reasons to say that it’s not just a bad film, but a downright catastrophic one?
2. Blonde is quite clearly in the ‘woman in trouble’ subgenre of film, where an innocent (and beautiful, obviously) woman undergoes huge amounts of unwarranted and undeserved suffering for the film’s entire runtime. It would take me at least eight other paragraphs to fully interrogate the implications and possible issues arising from this subgenre, not least the fact that it even exists to begin with. It does, however, have quite the pedigree behind it, drawing a link all the way back to Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which is commonly (and for good reason) considered one of the greatest films of all time. In contemporary cinema, the two foremost practitioners in this space are David Lynch and Lars von Trier, both of whom are highly controversial figures in their own right. (1) What is however, very uncontroversial is the fact that Blonde‘s writer/director Andrew Dominik will not be seen at the level of those two – at least not based on this film, which cribs so especially heavily from Lynch it’s almost surprising that he doesn’t get screenplay credit.
3. Based on the description of the micro-genre Blonde exists in, it’s thus not surprising that the movie is a miserable and painful experience to sit through. But did it have to be such a fucking slog? Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Breaking the Waves (1996), Mulholland Dr. (2001), Dogville (2003), and Melancholia (2011) – a.k.a. the best ‘woman in trouble’ films made by Lynch and von Trier – are all relentlessly difficult to watch, catalogues of pain and suffering so well conceived and executed that they leave you feeling like shit afterwards. But for all their strengths and weaknesses, none of these movies are boring, which is the first major crime that Dominik commits, due to the biggest structural issue with the narrative, in that there isn’t even one to speak of in the first place. No, Blonde just lurches from ‘hey here’s a shitty thing that happened to Marilyn’ to ‘hey here’s another shitty thing that happened to Marilyn’ with no regard whatsoever for any semblance of narrative structure. It’s less of a story than a laundry list of events tied together only by the barest hint of chronology. Beyond that, the fact that Blonde is so determinedly dour and joyless means that there is nothing at all to contrast against the cavalcade of misery that makes up all of its (checks notes) 166 FUCKING MINUTES OF RUNTIME?
4. Think about it. Contrast is one of the basic tools of any storyteller. If you want our character to be put through the wringer, you have to have something beautiful or transcendental to contrast this against. Lynch and von Trier know this, and cleverly dot their films with pinpricks of light to enhance the darkness. But no, Blonde starts with the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face by blaring right to the viewer ‘hey did you know that Norma Jeane had an absentee father and a mentally ill mother’ to the extent that (sigh) her mother literally tries to drown 8-year-old Norma Jeane in a bathtub in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. (2) And it only gets slappier from there. Norma gets raped in her first meeting with Darryl Zanuck. She breaks down in her first audition and is mocked by all the men there. She gets pregnant (with Charlie Chaplin Jr.’s baby, no less) and is coerced into an abortion. She marries Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who abuses her. She divorces him and marries Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). The marriage is happy, but she falls down and oopsie-daisy, suffers a miscarriage. This sinks her further into drug and alcohol addiction, and (deep breath) is forced to give JFK a blowjob while in a drugged out haze, hallucinates (or does she?) that the Secret Service forces her to abort JFK’s secret baby, and finds out that the letters that she’s been receiving from her supposedly loving father who has been watching her from a distance were secretly written by Charlie Chaplin Jr. because … reasons. Oh, then she overdoses on barbiturates and dies. Fin. That’s it. That’s the ‘plot’ of the movie. No throughline, no discernible narrative structure, barely any setups or payoffs, nada. Just woe heaped onto more woe.
5. If I sound glib or flippant, it’s because the movie does nothing to differentiate one incident from another. It all just blends into so much miserable mush, with each successive scene of Monroe crying, naked, or crying while naked piling onto the previous one with rapidly diminishing returns, to the extent that it almost attains a sort of glorious camp. The JFK scene in particular seems fated to become this generation’s version of ‘no more wire hangers‘ or ‘you’re tearing me apart, Lisa‘, supposed scenes of high tragedy inverted into high comedy due to how over the top they are. And boy oh boy does the JFK scene go over the top. Hell, it practically hurdles over it with glee. This should be the lowest of low points for our protagonist, but every single creative decision is so mindbogglingly bad that it all adds up to a sick joke. The fact that JFK is in floral swim trunks for some reason. The black-and-white TV playing pictures of (sigh) phallic rockets being prepared for launch. The ridiculous close-up of Monroe, bug-eyed, sucking on … y’know what, I don’t even really want to think about what de Armas was made to do to get the shot. Oh, and the capper? An artsy zoom out into a theatre screen, with a full audience watching Monroe performing fellatio. Because she sees her life as a movie, get it? But again, when there is no levity or grace, only an almost gleeful wallowing in the mud, the supposed emotional impact of scenes like this is not only lost, but also backfires to such an extreme extent that it feels almost deliberate. What other kind of reaction could there be to the farce I’ve described above than laughter?
6. Oh, but Dominik is a serious filmmaker, and Blonde is a serious movie. It has to be, right? No less of a literary luminary than Joyce Carol Oates herself (ignore the fact that she wrote the source material) called it ‘remarkably feminist’. Is it? I mean … it depends on what you define as feminist. Is (checks notes) 166 MINUTES of non-stop degradation feminist? Is an almost entirely infantilised and passive protagonist (3), who calls her lovers ‘daddy’ and speaks with the same baby-voiced breathy cadence both on and off camera feminist? Is distilling what should be a complex set of motivations into the words ‘DADDY ISSUES’ rubberstamped on every shot in 72 point font feminist? Is it? Because it sure doesn’t look like it to me. And I haven’t even mentioned the abortion subplot, which is … problematic, to put it mildly. As hilarious as the foetus cam is (speaking of scenes destined to become camp classics), it doesn’t escape me one bit that the portrayal of first trimester foetuses as fully developed infants is snatched right out of anti-choice propaganda. Beyond that, there is also more than a hint of a suggestion in the movie that Monroe’s miscarriage of the child she conceived with Arthur Miller was some kind of karmic comeuppance for having the first abortion, with the literal foetus in her body reprimanding her for doing so. Don’t get me wrong here. I’ve read my Roger Ebert and my Henry James. I know that ‘it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.’ I know that ‘questions of art are questions (in the widest sense) of execution; questions of morality are quite another affair’. I’m not knocking Blonde for not cohering with my politics, I’m knocking it for not cohering with its own supposed politics, which is a far greater sin of moviemaking.
7. Not to keep banging on the same drum made of the skin of a dead horse, but one key reason why Blonde fails at making any kind of coherent political point is because of how much its protagonist lacks (i) agency and (ii) motivation. Blonde‘s Monroe is nothing more than a naked crying object that is punted from one abuser to another, with nary any moments where she makes a choice of her own. This leads to one of the biggest questions I had while watching the movie – if being Marilyn Monroe was such a miserable experience, why didn’t Norma Jeane just quit? What exactly does she get out of it? The best ‘woman in trouble’ films usually give some indication at the beginning why their characters would put themselves through abjection. Sometimes, they are obvious, as in Blue Velvet, where Dorothy’s (Isabella Rossellini) husband and son have been kidnapped by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in order to force her into sex slavery. Sometimes they are less obvious, as in Breaking The Waves, where Bess’s (Emily Watson) unconditional love for her husband and God get twisted into sexual debasement. My favourite example (and one that is an instructive comparison for Blonde) is in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., when … y’know what? Watch it for yourself. Everyone should see this scene at least once in their lives.
A tiny bit of context here, as the only clip of this scene available on Youtube misses out what takes place before the audition. Betty (Naomi Watts) is an innocent small town girl who arrives in LA hoping to become a big movie star. This scene depicts her first audition. Prior to the audition, the lead actor and the director behave lasciviously towards Betty, who up to this point has been almost stereotypically ‘aw-shucks gee-whiz’ naive. We know how this is going to go. She will get taken advantage of, and run out crying, her innocence shattered. Except … she fucking kills it. (4) She takes charge, and blows away everyone in the room, including the creepy director and lead actor. You don’t need me to tell you that it all goes downhill from here very quickly. But that’s exactly what makes this scene so important in the overall narrative of the movie – we know exactly what Betty wants from her Hollywood odyssey. She wants to replicate this moment again. Blonde never gives us anything like this. Oh sure, there’s a lot of Monroe telling the audience how much acting means to her, but it’s never shown to the viewer. Similarly, there are throwaway lines where she states that she tried to find her supposed actor father in the studio lots now that she’s an actor, but again, it’s never shown. I mean, ain’t nobody got time for that, right? Especially when the movie has already been so judiciously trimmed to (checks notes) 166 FUCKING MINUTES OF RUNTIME? There is nothing that Blonde‘s Norma Jeane gets out of being Marilyn, because the film’s godawful conception of what it means to be ‘feminist’ is just to keep hammering away at the viewer that this poor woman suffered, and suffered, and suffered. And so, in the blighted, blinkered world of the film, there cannot possibly be any moment of transcendent joy or even a single meaningful decision Monroe can make except for her suicide, because any exception would go against its twisted ideology. In its haranguing of the viewer about how objectified Marilyn Monroe was, Blonde arguably objectifies her further than any of the hooting hordes taking pictures of her during the filming of The Seven Year Itch (1955). At least they didn’t claim to be doing it for her own good.
8. Oh, and I haven’t even reached the worst part of the movie. And it’s been 7 paragraphs! (5) The style. Oh god, the ‘style’. For those who don’t know, Blonde switches filming styles with practically every shot. Aspect ratios flit from widescreen to Academy to square to portrait. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Some shots are in black and white, some in colour. Those in colour vary wildly in terms of saturation, filter, and grading. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. A voiceover from Monroe kicks in somewhere in the two hour mark, lasts about fifteen minutes, and then disappears from the rest of the film. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve already mentioned the phrase ‘foetus cam’ more than I’d ever like to in my life, but did you know there’s also a uterus cam? Yes, that means a shot filmed from the perspective of Marilyn Monroe’s uterus. Because. All this adds up to nothing more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. There is no discernible schema as to why some scenes are shot in certain aspect ratios or why some scenes are in colour beyond my ungenerous suspicion that Andrew Dominik thought it just ‘looked cool’. Don’t get me wrong, some of Blonde looks amazing. In small doses, deliberately doled out across a more controlled film, these shots would have been stunning. There’s a scene when Monroe walks out of her limo to a film premiere, and Dominik adds juuuuuuuuuuuust enough CGI to the mouths of the screaming mass of (male) photographers and reporters to make them large and misshapen, and that image has so much uncanny power and effectiveness it almost allows convinces me that this movie is not awful. Or take Arthur Miller’s first introduction, as he walks down a New York street that looks almost like it was taken right off the screen from Taxi Driver, down to the exact film stock used. Or even the final shot, which is subtle and poetic and graceful in a way that is entirely lacking from the rest of the film. But these are the barest morsels of flavour in what is otherwise a tasteless gruel. Every scene in this movie could be trimmed to half its length. Almost a fifth of the scenes (and that’s me being kind) are extraneous material and could easily be cut. Every scene of extended conversation is painfully slow and dull, not helped by the laughably on-the-nose dialogue. I’ve defended the concept of ‘style-over-substance’ before, but it takes a truly special film to make overt stylisation for overt stylisation’s sake so fucking boring.
9. Ana de Armas doesn’t deserve this. She really doesn’t. I’d hesitate to laud her performance as much as some others have, but that’s less a problem of de Armas and more a problem of the screenplay which forces her into such a limited emotional range. However, within the confines of that prison, de Armas shines. Yes, there are moments when her natural Cuban accent slips out (certain vowel sounds tend to cause the problem), but I’d argue that there might be more than a teensy racial bias that she’s catching so much flak for it as opposed to, say, Benedict Cumberbatch any time he has to do an American accent. Above all else, de Armas is one hundred percent committed to the role, willingly plumbing the depths that Blonde‘s Norma Jeane endures, and throwing herself fully into even the most exploitative scenes of the film. On a less than pleasant note, I found myself questioning just why de Armas had to be naked so often in scenes that did not call for them. At points, it even reached parodic levels, like when an enraged Joe DiMaggio returns home after finding out about Monroe’s 1940s nude pin-up photos only to find her sitting on the floor in just her panties and telling him ‘oh Daddy, it’s my fault’ immediately after he hits her. I mean, how is anyone supposed to take that shit seriously? I want to judge Dominik and Blonde in good faith and believe that every decision was made for purely artistic reasons, but it’s very, very difficult not to see de Armas’s constant nudity as exploitative. It really sucks to have to even think about this, because again, de Armas gives a truly excellent performance, but the film she is in lets her down. Not many other actors in Blonde are given the chance to make much of an impression, but I want to give kudos to Adrien Brody for making his Arthur Miller one of the only sources of light in an otherwise relentlessly dour movie. Brody radiates warmth and gentleness, and the film actually becomes semi-tolerable in the moments when it is just him and de Armas onscreen. On a less serious note, Xavier Samuel is so ridiculously sexy in the role of Charlie Chaplin Jr. that I’m surprised the screen doesn’t burst into flames every time he appears.
10. The most galling thing about Blonde is that if I squint really hard, I can see the good, potentially even great version of it. Aside from recommending the more judicious use of Dominik’s admittedly impressive visual stylisation, the screenplay itself isn’t exactly beyond repair. Its conception of the Norma Jeane-Marilyn Monroe relationship is actually a very interesting one. BBC film critic Mark Kermode has called Blonde a ‘very good horror film‘ and I’m inclined to agree with the latter half of that description. At its core, the idea that ‘Marilyn Monroe’ is a spirit called into existence by a traumatised and scared Norma Jeane to protect herself who eventually possesses and takes over her entire life is a quite excellent one. The problem here, as usual, is that there’s just so little of that in the final product, what with having to compete with all the other pointless nonsense that the film packs into its (checks notes) 166 MINUTES OF FUCKING RUNTIME? (6) Look, I really wanted to like Blonde. In a vacuum, the idea of the filmmaker behind one of the best movies in recent memory (7) adapting a Joyce Carol Oates novel to create a postmodern take on the mythos of Marilyn Monroe in a manner both explicitly experimental and explicitly … explicit sounds right up my alley! Lord knows I’ve complained so many times about the flattening of the cinematic landscape and the way it has polarised into too-big-to-fail franchise blockbusters on one end and micro-budget indie passion projects on the other (with the occasional smattering of middlebrow pablum every time Oscar season rolls around). Blonde could have been an honest-to-god arthouse event, a relatively high-budgeted movie unafraid to be artsy and daring and iconoclastic, but as it stands, it is a failure on almost every level. It plays up to the absolute worst stereotypes of the arthouse film as a pretentious bore that thinks it’s way deeper than it actually is. It is a supposedly ‘feminist’ film that objectifies, infantilises, and exploits its protagonist and lead performer to make the ridiculously facile point that ‘hey didja know that men are shitty and gross to women?’ It puts in so much effort to be interesting and stylish that all its little tricks just end up being gimmicky and unnecessary. It simplifies the story of a complex, troubled woman who became an enduring global icon to ‘Daddy Issues: The Movie’. It is a desperate, flop-sweat soaked mess of a movie so incoherent in tone and theme that it re-brutalises the person it claims to be saving, ignoring her talents and her successes (8) to instead churn out a litany of increasingly histrionic, repetitive, and fucking boring scenes of suffering and abjection. And oh yes, it has the gall to drone on for (checks notes) 166 MINUTES OF FUCKING RUNTIME? (9)
Don’t waste your time with this, not even to rubberneck at the car crash.
Blonde is a piece of shit.
Verdict: I mean … was I not clear before this? Avoid Blonde at all costs.
- Other filmmakers have dabbled in this space too, from contemporary ones like Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan (2010) and mother! (2017)) and Todd Haynes (Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002)) to older legends like Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1971)) and John Cassavetes (A Woman Under The Influence (1974)). Lynch and von Trier, however, are noteworthy for how many of their films fall into this category.
- I feel duty-bound to note that this moment categorically did not take place in the real Monroe’s life.
- Ok I said I wasn’t going to do it, but I have to. The real Norma Jeane Baker was a shrewd, intelligent woman who achieved multiple wins in her battle against a tyrannical and controlling studio system. She founded her own production company in a time when actors were essentially treated like cattle by the major studios. She fought against being chronically underpaid, and renegotiated her contract with Fox to grant her more money and creative control. She was difficult to work with and emotionally troubled, yes, but also a gifted actor, a canny businesswoman, and an active participant in the creation of her va-va-voom bombshell public persona. She was categorically not … whatever Blonde thinks she was.
- I’ve mentioned this before, but Naomi Watts’s performance in this movie is one of the GOATs.
- This review is extra lengthy in honour of Blonde‘s (checks notes) 166 FUCKING MINUTES OF RUNTIME?
- That was the last time, I swear.
- I gave Andrew Dominik a lot of shit here, but The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is a masterpiece.
- I didn’t want to include this in the main body of the review because it’s (i) extra-diegetic and (ii) the review is already way too long, but Andrew Dominik’s statements about Marilyn Monroe in interviews have made it all too clear that he only has contempt for her movies and her performances in them. Small wonder why she’s nothing more than a sex object in Blonde when the auteur behind the film so clearly believes that was all she had to offer in her work.
- Faked you out, suckers! Now that’s what we call subverting expectations!