“Some icons are best left alone, and if there is ever an argument to be made in support of this statement one only has to point at Blonde.“
Some icons are so big that their image should remain untouched, untainted by the work of artisans who keep killing their darlings (or are they?) over and over again. The latest cinematic murder is Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, a film that gets stuck in the iconography of Marilyn Monroe but never captures the elusive mystery of the woman at the film’s center. Blonde aims to be a criticism on the male gaze that caused the downward spiral that eventually got hold of Monroe, arguably cinema history’s largest sex symbol, but subtlety is not Dominik’s strongest suit, so Monroe’s journey past an endless string of terrible men becomes a mind-numbing exercise. Ana de Armas, getting an A for effort but struggling with a terribly underwritten role, strikes all the right poses, but Marilyn Monroe she is not. She shouldn’t feel bad, as Blonde is just the latest failed attempt to capture Monroe, although it’s probably the worst and most campy of them all.
The film opens with a young Norma Jeane Mortenson living with her alcoholic mother (Julianne Nicholson), whose delusions imprint on the girl that her father is a famous movie star. The father’s absence throughout her life will mark Norma Jeane, best known by her stage name Marilyn Monroe, who inevitably will call all men in her life she liaises with ‘Daddy’. And there will be many men, from studio heads to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), and from the offspring of famous actors to playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, whose performance is the film’s single silver lining). Thematically the film touches upon the male gaze (in particular when it’s directed at Monroe), the erasure of identity that comes with attaining fame (“There isn’t any Norma Jeane, is there?” as Monroe points out), and women’s loss of control over their own body when men can profit off it, either financially or sexually.
According to the film, few men in Monroe’s life actually cared for her: Charles Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr., both known for their turbulent lifestyles, remain true friends until her death, yet also frequently engage in threesomes with her. And Arthur Miller has a genuine affection for Monroe after she impresses him with an interpretation of a character in one of his plays. To her he is the ideal father figure that she has missed all her life. But from the start of her acting career Monroe is mainly treated as a product, a doll to be sexually abused and controlled at will. When she gets pregnant by either of her lovers the studio forces her to have an abortion. When she is called in by the president of the United States (Caspar Phillipson), he forces her to give him a blowjob while talking on the phone about other women bringing sexual assault charges against him. Men beat her, men verbally abuse her, men rape her. Monroe’s public persona of the alluring and always smiling sexpot gets further and further away from the sweet but naïve young woman that gets constantly humiliated. Increasingly she resents this public persona, ultimately driving her over the edge.
Blonde has been a long-gestating project for Dominik, who worked on his passion project off and on for 15 years. The end result is an astounding misfire. It can’t be said that the Australian director doesn’t throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen, and his hodgepodge of visually contrasting styles and aspect ratios may be an attempt to bring structure to Monroe’s turbulent life and career, but it devolves into an exhausting film with the aesthetic of a ’90s music video by, say, that other Marilyn Monroe wannabe. It’s a relentless assault on the senses that in fact makes little sense, and overshadows the tragic story Blonde wants to tell and the themes it wants to address. ‘Less is more’ is not one of Dominik’s credos, clearly, and while it seems he had definite ideas for making a film about the tragedy of being an iconic woman, the way he goes about it is a misguided ‘style over substance’ approach. Having a distinctive style to tackle a biopic is definitely not a hindrance to creating an artistically satisfying film. Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín showed this with both Spencer and Jackie in recent years. The main difference with Blonde and Dominik’s work is consistency and congruence: Blonde is all over the place, while Spencer and in particular Jackie display the singular vision of a true artist.
What adds to Blonde‘s problems is Dominik’s insistent attempts to recreate Monroe’s most recognizable images, whether they be Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ most famous musical number or her white dress lifting while standing over a subway grating in The Seven Year Itch, to name a few examples. For a film that intends to critique the objectification of Monroe, focusing this much on the sexualizing iconography of its star defeats the purpose: the audience knows the issue with this gaze, so why subject us to it? Showing the actress orally pleasuring JFK isn’t the issue, it’s the way the scene is shot. Having de Armas go topless doesn’t have to be a problem, but when it is done repeatedly without functional context it becomes one. The portrayal of Monroe thus becomes schizophrenic; its heart is in the right place, and the themes it wants to discuss and question are definitely valid, certainly in our current times, but the film simply isn’t clever enough to overcome what it wants to condemn: the fact that Marilyn Monroe was defined by being observed.
In part this was because Monroe was very little more than an object of beauty, or so the film has us believe. There have been countless debates on whether this reflects reality, but Blonde puts Monroe forth as a naïve and needy woman with a daddy complex. This provides Ana de Armas with little to sink her teeth into, constantly oscillating between puppy-like giddiness and weepy despair. De Armas looks nothing like Monroe, and her attempts at the icon’s breathy tone are admirable but little more than imitation. It is only in the last half hour, when Monroe’s resentment of her own image drives her into substance abuse and frequent erratic behaviour, that the actress gets an opportunity to delve into her character’s psychology a little deeper. A shame that this final stretch chooses to emulate David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with a soundtrack that sounds suspiciously close to Angelo Badalamenti’s theme for Laura Palmer. Alas, just as much as Ana de Armas is no Marilyn Monroe, Andrew Dominik is no David Lynch, and any attempt to create a haunting ending for Blonde‘s protagonist falls flat in forced imagery. This sadly leaves one of the most anticipated titles also one of the most disappointing ones, a lengthy failure that revels in its excess (much like Netflix’s other title in competition, Bardo) but is an empress with no clothes. Some icons are best left alone, and if there is ever an argument to be made in support of this statement one only has to point at Blonde.