There are many issues with Blonde, Andrew Dominik’s sumptuous and overwrought Marilyn Monroe fantasy. But the preoccupation the movie has with Monroe’s suffering, real or imagined, has been at the center of much of its criticism: People who hate it accuse Dominik of depicting Monroe as merely a victim. They have criticized the movie’s relentless onslaught of images that show Monroe enduring physical, sexual, and mental abuse. They have called out the film’s strange anti-choice undertones and its several traumatic scenes of abortion, rape, and miscarriage. They have deemed it an offensive and exploitative portrait of an already highly exploited figure.
And yet the most offensive thing about Blonde is that it is boring. For almost three hours, the movie flits from one traumatic scene to one career highlight to another traumatic scene to some meticulous recreation of an iconic Monroe image, on and on, attempting to coalesce into something poignant and real. But, other than the queasiness and the dread, this montage of pain doesn’t engender actual interest. Perhaps because the film itself is uninterested in its subject. Perhaps because, beyond tone and aesthetic, the film doesn’t actually have anything valuable to say about pain, particularly the pain women endure in a patriarchal world. Perhaps because the film itself has an intensely and unselfconscious patriarchal lens.
In a recent interview with the British Film Institute’s (BFI) publication Sight and Sound, Dominik said that he didn’t think of adapting Blonde into a movie when he first read it 20 years ago because he “wasn’t that interested in it.”
“But there was a story I was interested in telling, which is about how childhood drama shapes an adult’s perception of the world, and I could sort of see that within Blonde,” he said. “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images.”
That tracks, because there is no internal coherence in Blonde beyond its imagery. Nestled in amidst the trauma and misery porn is a gossamer-thin exploration of trauma, mental illness, and suicidality which adds nothing to the culture’s very one-dimensional obsession with Monroe as both persona and person. In other words, there is no care. The movie shows, but the images — Monroe (played by Ana de Armas) weeping as she stares at her own reflection; Monroe performing fellatio on President John F. Kennedy juxtaposed with imagery from a B-horror flick — don’t actually tell us much beyond how awful it is to be abused. Perhaps this is a revelation for some, but 60 years after her death, one would hope that a movie however loosely based on Monroe’s life would have something more compelling to contribute. Images are where the search for meaning begins and ends.
The thing is, Monroe was a victim in many ways. She was also powerful in many ways. The movie’s exploration of her victimhood is necessary, the problem is that it posits that her victimization was the most fascinating thing about her. My guess is that the only reason some people may find that fascinating is that they still believe that having “it all” — beauty, fame, wealth — is an antidote to despair. But haven’t we established that famous people are often miserable, just like everyone else? There’s something dehumanizing about fetishizing a person’s trauma in order to prove they were a person.
Many filmmakers, particularly male filmmakers, don’t know what to do with the heights of feminine emotion — despair, longing, rage, madness. Often, rather than truly engage with these emotions they romanticize, aestheticize, sensationalize, and fetishize — in Blonde, the depictions of Monroe’s pain are always framed as spectacle. We are watching her rather than with her as she’s ogled by a looming crowd of men on the set of The Seven-Year-Itch (1955), or in the strange final moments of the film when she dies, her ghost smiling and winking up at us in a morbid final performance. The movie still demands beauty and glamor from Marilyn even in her darkest moments.
It’s the one-note nature of Blonde, its tedious circling around a single theme, that enhances the sense of exploitation. But then, what makes a story exploitative? Is it merely the form the story takes, or the fact that it exists at all? I’d argue that the exploitation is underway the moment that one decides to make the movie about the dead woman. There is no escaping that. And so, any movie about Monroe (or about any tragic public figure for that matter) must bump up against this fact, must grapple with its own incongruity if it really means to say anything at all. The problem is that Blonde doesn’t want to say anything, or if it does, it’s that exploitation and sensationalism are more compelling than humanity.
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