Film

Andrew Dominik’s film Blonde distorts the myth of Marilyn Monroe to a cheap display of her suffering. By Isabella Trimboli.

Blonde

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in a scene from Blonde.
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in a scene from Blonde.
Credit: Netflix

“Truth is, it’s a disaster to be a girl,” Anne Carson writes in her play Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. A reimagining of Euripides’ tragedy Helen, it fuses two sirens across two millennia: Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe – or Norma Jeane Baker, as she was once known – for a treatise on the privileges and political wages of beauty. The genius of the text is in its slipperiness: meaning constantly moves and the identity of Norma/Helen is never fixed. She is allowed to be many things, sometimes all at once: wandering wife, bombshell, industry captive, oracle, fretting mother, mirage, political pawn and truthteller.

Andrew Dominik’s Blonde – also fascinated by Monroe’s mythological status – is not slippery. “She was symbolic of something. She was the Aphrodite of the 20th century, the American goddess of love. And she killed herself. So what does that mean?” Dominik said in a recent interview. Comparatively little, it seems. The film – adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’s exhaustive, hyperbolic fictional book – is stuck on Marilyn the disaster, primed for death as soon as she’s born.

The impulse of ancient Greek dramatists to make their female characters endure relentless violations has certainly been taken up by the Australian director. Over its tortuous, two-and-a-half-hour run time, there are so many that to name them all would take up this entire review. They include a Gasper Noé-style vaginal POV as Monroe gets an abortion; rape – repeated throughout the film in flashback; a guilt-tripping, talking foetus rendered in CGI; and a potty cam shot that captures the star throwing up from too many pills.

The torment sets in early. Blonde’s earliest scenes are tawdry melodrama of the abusive mother variety. We see Norma as a child, reunited with her drunk mum as Californian bushfires rage nearby, embers filling up her crummy apartment. Here the child learns the identity of her father from a dusty, framed photograph. This culminates in her mother attempting to drown her in the bathtub.

The depictions of these cruelties are so rote and tiresome because the relish that some men take in indulging degradation in order to expose it is as old as antiquity. I am more interested in what Dominik misses about female suffering in his pursuit of brutal spectacle.

In Blonde, suffering corrodes intellect. Ana de Armas as Monroe displays a childlike foolishness. She’s frantic and nervy, constantly blubbering and incapable of uttering a coherent sentence – “Daddy” seems to be the only word she is able to say without bursting into tears. While Oates’s book is Gothic in its imaginative treatment of Monroe’s life, we are at least privy to a woman’s thoughts, ideals and struggles. The film robs Monroe of any inner life. She is only a vessel for agony and shame, continuously discharging screams and tears. Monroe is portrayed as a hysteric even in the one moment when we see her attempting to haul back control – she is on the phone with her agent, angry that her co-star is getting paid more than her, and quips “I’m playing the blonde in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, before chuckling erratically to herself.

For a film seemingly invested in myth, it is odd that Dominik has omitted the book’s transformation of Norma into Marilyn: the supreme erotic fantasy of the postwar era who set the template for all bombshells thereafter. Instead, the film practically jumps from terrible childhood to the star’s assault by a studio executive.

The only indication of this reinvention is through facsimiles of famous photographs, followed later in Blonde by replications of Monroe’s film roles. This mimicry, while exacting, is passionless and fails to capture what made Marilyn special and the symbol of her time. There is only one glimpse of her acting gifts – a screen test for Don’t Bother to Knock. In other scenes, Dominik cuts her off – quite literally. A scene at the Actors Studio freezes on her face before she can open her mouth. All we see is the aftermath: her soon-to-be-husband Arthur Miller weeping, the crowd clapping wildly.

While it is easy to cast her performances as the excess of Hollywood exploitation, it’s more difficult to express how her comedic brilliance existed alongside mistreatment. Her performances were an alchemy of effervescent presence, precise timing and line delivery so self-aware that the put-on was clear. She achieved this despite detesting the films and her constant typecasting. This tension caused slippages on screen that destabilised the illusion of a complete ditz.

“One of her great gifts was to distil suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else,” writes Jacqueline Rose in a brilliant essay, “A Rumbling of Things Unknown”, which posits that Monroe was a woman who desperately wanted to tell the world – especially men – the truth but instead was tasked to hold up a nation’s delusions, desire blotting out political reality. I urge anyone with even slight interest in Monroe to read the essay, if only to engage with psychoanalytic thought that ventures beyond Blonde’s simplistic “absent daddy as obliterative wound” diagnosis.

Violence and the recycling of archetypes sit at the centre of Oates’s and Dominik’s works. Even a cursory glance at both their oeuvres uncovers a litany of thieves, murderers, wayward wives, hustlers, hitmen, fringe dwellers and innocent girls that end up spoiled by an unforgiving world. They are not afraid of the obvious, or of hammering an idea home. Marilyn, the mother of all ciphers, presents them with the ideal subject: a giant cultural symbol into which they can pour their own ideas and concerns. In both book and film we get a parable about girls who suffer under the hands of bad men and a bad industry. But Marilyn’s life and art – which this fictional story relies upon – combat this reduction.

Even when Dominik tries to break away from archetypes and convention through visual flourishes – infuriating aspect ratio changes, constant shifts from colour to black-and-white, go-pro shots and a ménage à trois where bodies are stretched and melt into one another – the implications of these images is always neat and conservative: pleasure comes at a cost, madness destroys motherhood and the nuclear family is the ultimate rescue.

If we are to believe the film’s conceit that Monroe was fatally torn between two selves – the traumatised, meek, private “Norma” and the invention of the peroxide starlet, devoured by the public – why does her leftism, which bridged these selves, rarely warrant a mention? While there have been endless reimaginings of her life, only a handful seem to consider her politics and what it meant for a woman so baked into the American erotic ideal to hold views that clashed with the country’s anti-intellectual agenda at the time of McCarthyism. (Oates’s book, to her credit, does mention the House Un-American Activities Committee). It’s an alignment, I’d argue, that sprang from Monroe’s intimate experience of poverty and debasement.

Suffering can make us sick and blind to ourselves. But it also can clarify, wipe clean ignorance and reveal the world for what it really is. Both things can be true. “Men do not see me,” Monroe once said. “They just lay their eyes on me.” Blonde is a crude, boring exercise in looking and not seeing. 

Blonde is now streaming on Netflix.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Brute spectacle".

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