‘Blonde’ isn’t quite the trainwreck, faux-feminist diatribe many claim it to be, but neither is it a particularly revelatory recount of the titular star’s life and inner turmoil, failing on most levels to deliver anything genuinely substantive.
Andrew Dominik’s latest effort in grappling with celebrity and its interweaving personae both on and off the screen is a film which finds itself caught between two extremes. It’s galvanised by a phenomenal performance from Ana de Armas, who embodies the role of Monroe with an eerie likeness as she’s thrust through various vignettes from the star’s life, but her own deeply affecting empathy often finds itself at odds with Dominik’s removed, dispassionate sense of voyeurism. Much of its runtime plays out in glossy resplendence but this internal strife dominates any opportunity to generate an effective throughline.
There’s certainly truth to the world it attempts to expose, but some of Dominik’s narrative choices ring so odd as to undercut the insight they offer, most notably the fact that the constant shifts in aspect ratio and vacillation from black and white to colour bare no real significance to the story other than replicating exact photographs from Monroe’s life.
Even ignoring some of Dominik’s more unsavoury comments in his interview with Christina Newland for Sight and Sound, the film ostensibly revels in an atmosphere of exploitation and trauma. Much of this is exacerbated by the fact that the film itself is a work of fiction, with fictitious events taking place alongside very real, iconic moments in the actress’s life. And it’s in this regard that Dominik essentially maintains the same unscrupulous exploitation of a woman that he is supposedly condemning. Equally though, it’s also been the subject of some bizarre, bad faith criticism (mostly in the twitter and Letterboxd spheres), positioning it as a piece of pro-life propaganda, a critique which only holds up when the scenes in question are completely divorced from their narrative context.
But it also isn’t difficult to see where Dominik is coming from here. If the perceived life of Marilyn was essentially all spurious presentation, why not offer up an equally plausible interpretation of events? Conversely where the film primarily falters is not strictly in its exploitation of Norma Jean, but rather Dominik’s ultimately narrow and incurious assessment of her as a person. It’s a film so determined to dissolve the confines of public image and expose the truths lingering beneath the surface that it ends up robbing Monroe of much of her agency.
Still, I don’t buy this as completely unsympathetic to Monroe. There are glimmers of warmth within the maelstrom that the film depicts – her relationship with Arthur Miller is rendered with genuine tenderness and frames itself within the context of her own often cast aside curiosity and intellect, and an early scene involving a threesome is genuinely erotic.
‘Blonde’ also forms an interesting other end of the spectrum to this year’s ‘Elvis’. Both frequently visually dazzling and idiosyncratic, but equally cheapened by director’s who seem more interested in historical revisionism. Luhrmann’s blatantly propagandistic incarnation of the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ seemed to garner little criticism for its dubious racial politics and conveniently omitted details of Presley’s relationship to Priscilla. In spite of criticisms against it, it seems audiences aren’t so bothered by the inherent make-believe of biopics as they are the particular message their cinematic language evokes.
Andrew Dominik clearly never set out to make a biopic about Marilyn Monroe, her accomplishments or a truthful account of her personal life, and I don’t think criticisms levelled at this aspect of the film are particularly useful. It is also worth noting though, that what he did make is an overlong, certainly exploitative experiment that attempts to divulge the nightmarish reality of living as an American myth executed with little genuine insight. He ends up making a pantomime of the life of a woman who would have wished for the opposite. There’s a part of me that has admiration for the brazen filmmaking on display here, especially as it manages to escape the creative bankruptcy of the Netflix sheen, but I also wouldn’t deny anyone any rage that they feel towards this film. Oftentimes genuinely enthralling, Dominik’s vision is ultimately a poorly realised one, and even though any other film made about Marilyn Monroe would also be a work of fiction, no matter its authorial intent, this one happens to be remarkably incurious and complacent.
[Daniel Strathdee – he/him – @daniel_strathdee]