“I read a review that said the director must hate her,” said my housemate's girlfriend about one hour into watching Andrew Dominik’s Blonde – an adaptation of the late Marilyn Monroe's life from writer Joyce Carol Oates' book of the same name.
It was the first review I’d heard since deciding to spend my Friday night watching another retelling of the Hollywood starlet’s life. I’m not sure whether that comment tainted the rest of my viewing experience, but by the movie's end I was questioning the same thing.
I have not read the semi-fictionalised book of which Andrew Dominik’s film is adapted, but I have read that its pages contain a slightly more nuanced look into the tragedies of Marilyn Monroe's life. For Dominik, it seemed like it was less about the story and more about the feeling.
“In the end, it’s about the book,” Dominik told Sight And Sound Magazine, “and adapting the book is really about adapting the feelings the book gave me.” Later, interviewer Christina Newland shared an outtake from their conversation featuring Dominik calling Monroe’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a film about “well-dressed whores.”
But I digress.
Marilyn Monroe is perhaps one of the most prolific case studies into how Hollywood can mistreat a vulnerable woman, break her and spit her back out. It is an important part of her story to tell. But while some say the film is a stab at David Lynch-esque cinema, wanting praise for it’s cinematography and performance rather than the actual story itself, Blonde offers little in new revelations about Marilyn Monroe. While Dominik is talented at experimental camera angles and framing, it is a small pool of people who watch films solely for the cinematography.
Blonde was obviously not made to depict the accolades, awards and power Monroe possessed to reach the heights that she did. Instead, it’s a layered look into the cruel reach of the patriarchy, the film business and how family tragedy and public persona can push a person to the edge. But then the question stands: why does our entertainment industry still feel the need to depict our cultural moguls in trauma rather than triumph?
When it comes to Dominik’s characterisation of Marilyn Monroe, “Infantilising” is a word I’ve seen used repeatedly; from calling her various husbands “Daddy”, to moping around for three hours big-eyed and whimpering, or asking a housekeeper, who hands her an egg while preparing dinner, whether she can eat it (They surely can’t expect us to believe that a university educated person, or anyone for that matter, doesn’t know an egg is edible).
There is an incessant undercurrent of men taking advantage of her (a truth), but rather than show any defiance to the encounters; it’s this degradation from men that is the driving force in which Monroe achieves time in the spotlight.
One scene, in particular, where Monroe can be seen sucking JFK’s dick while making unwavering eye contact to the camera for more than a minute is, ultimately, just a big “why”? What did it achieve? Who was that for?
The point of the film, however, is most lost in the rose garden scene, where Monroe’s aborted foetus visits her in a vision. Yes, this actually happens.
“You won’t hurt me this time?” it asks her.
While a confusing dive into Monroe’s own fears of being abandoned, it doubles as a bewildering vehicle for some kind of message: perhaps political, perhaps judgemental, and ultimately cruel.
One of the only things that holds the film together is Ana De Armas' performance. Is it Oscar worthy? Yeah, probably. Is the film itself? No.
In the end, watching Blonde was an uncomfortable experience devoid of any meaningful exploration into who Marilyn was. But it’s likely that that was the mood-altering depiction Dominik was going for – something that made you feel, rather than think – a style of movie, I’d argue, a decade past its use-by date. Since the collective push of women in the world to be seen as more than just meat, audiences are tired of the same old fodder that centres women’s pain for their entertainment.
While Blonde may have aimed to portray the tragedies of Marilyn Monroe’s life in a raw and existential way, this film was more tragedy for tragedy’s sake (and a tragedy in itself).