How long has it been since we got a truly controversial movie lodge itself into The Discourse? It’s been a while. For my money, the last true controversial movie was Joker, a film that had media stations telling people not to see it for fear of the film inspiring mass shooters. Which of course, it didn’t. Now we have Blonde, a fictional movie of Marilyn Monroe’s life, based off of the fictional book written by Joyce Carol Oates, with a few controversies surrounding the film. First and foremost was the supposed level of graphic assault levied towards Monroe in the film. And if you’ve taken a look at the book, that concern was fairly justified, since the book has some incredibly heinous scenes in it, both physical and sexual abuse to an absurd degree. Secondly was the disastrous press tour in which the director Andrew Dominik made multiple comments about the film and Monroe herself, making himself out to be a misogynistic buffoon just days before the film was released to general audiences. These two factors fused into the journalistic equivalent of a great rotting whale carcass in the middle of the ocean, whipping the surrounding Posters and Take-Havers into a feeding frenzy. Blonde’s Letterboxd score fell faster than a bowling ball dropped from the top of the Burj Khalifa, and currently sits at an aggregate score of 2.2; a score lower than Crash (2004), a film that, in my view, is infinitely worse than Blonde.
The question then becomes, does Blonde deserve all the hate?
In regards to the level of graphic assault towards Monroe, I am thankful that the film does not adapt the more messed up scenes from the book. There is still plenty of physical and sexual assault in the film, and if you are sensitive towards that content I would advise not watching this film. If you can stomach films like Fire Walk With Me, you can stomach Blonde, especially since most of the assault scenes are cut around, or very brief (with one VERY notable exception in the last thirty minutes of the movie).
Dominik himself is a director that seems to be utterly fascinated with America. Over his past couple of movies, Dominik has asserted that America is a place whose infatuation with myths and lies obscures the bleak and selfish motives and back-alley-deals that rot away at the core of the country. With Blonde, it is extremely apparent that Dominik is once again aiming his spyglass at America, this time focusing in on the utter pain and horror that comes along with having the public’s feasting eyes trained upon you. The Monroe of this story is one whose entire life is spent in this waking nightmare of a world, constantly belittled and abused by those around her, including and especially by those she loves. Respite is nowhere to be found.
It is important to note that this movie is trying to be its own thing, not necessarily a faithful adaptation of the book. Dominik is quite interested in Marilyn as a public figure, and how this role chewed her up and spit her out. And in that regard, the movie is very successful. You feel enormous empathy for Norma Jean as you see her navigate this world that sees her as nothing more than a piece of meat to be ogled and devoured. Much of this empathy comes through Ana de Armas, who has fallen completely into Norma Jean and commands such emotional breadth, that you always see glimmers of the talent that Norma Jean possessed, talent that was always seen as a bonus, but never her draw. The visual style of this movie is just as unstable as Norma Jean’s life: color schemes and aspect ratios change on the fly to reflect the iconic photos that make up the public’s perception of Marilyn. Some of the sequences of this film feel straight out of a horror film, with a particular dream sequence in the last third genuinely feeling akin to something David Lynch would make. From a technical standpoint, the film is marvelous to watch.
Even with this grand and diverse visual identity, Blonde’s proclivity to explore Marilyn Monroe as a Public Figure is unfortunately the cause of one of the film’s main problems. Because the film focuses so much on the Public Figure aspect, we see very little of Norma Jean outside of that context. As mentioned earlier, the movie hints and teases Norma’s intelligence and talents in some lines of dialogue and some genuinely moving scenes, but it’s only hints and teases. The resulting portrait of Norma Jean is one that is fairly boilerplate, only nuanced by the viciousness of her abuse at the hands of countless men, and an extremely unsubtle Freudian analysis of Monroe, complete with a half-baked identity crisis. The film also seems to implicate the audience in our lack of understanding about Monroe. The constant references to photos of Monroe through the cinematography contrasted with the abhorrent abuse that she suffers in the film scream at the audience “SEE??? YOU NEVER KNEW THE REAL MARILYN MONROE, YOU JUST KNEW THE GLAMORIZED IMAGE PLASTERED EVERYWHERE!!! YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD KNOWING THAT YOU KNEW SO LITTLE WHEN SHE WAS SUFFERING SO BADLY!!!!” However, this contempt for the general public falls flat on its face considering that the film itself does the exact same thing it is angry at the audience for: having a surface level understanding of Monroe and her troubled life. It also brings into question the point of showing so much of Monroe’s trauma if the film wasn’t going to show anything about her life aside from what the audience probably knew, or at least suspected, already. The film becomes less intelligent and more self-indulgent as a result, a viewing solidified by Dominik’s ignorant comments during the press tour for Blonde.
Much like Joker, Blonde doesn’t really warrant the overblown controversy it received. Both films are also not really all that remarkable, outside of an impressive lead performance and a handful of scenes. At best, Blonde is a visually remarkable film that thinks it is more important and has More To Say than it actually does. At worst, Blonde is exploiting Marilyn Monroe’s likeness, reducing her story to only include how horribly she was abused by America coupled with a shallow characterization of the starlet. Either way, outside of a few great scenes and Nick Cave’s gorgeous score, the movie doesn’t commit to either of these extremes enough to be remembered for longer than a couple months.
Production Company: Plan B Entertainment
Streaming Service: Netflix
Release Date: September 28, 2022
Reviewer Name: Liam Larkin-Smith
Date of Review: 10/1/22