As a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist who hates women and only wants to see movies where they go through supreme trauma, I was pleased to find that my favorite genre of film (woman torture) can also be an act of high art. In the case of Blonde, the Marilyn Monroe faux-biopic based on the Marilyn Monroe faux-biography, it’s the craft, score, performances, and thematic weight that rise to the surface, while the main focus of the film, which I’m told is the exploitation of women in order to give evil men a boner, falls into the background, almost as if it were a baseless assertion at its very core.
Personal trolling aside, the latest from Andrew Dominik does with a heavier hand for Monroe what Tarantino did for Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: he keeps the legend of a beloved celebrity alive, reasserting her personhood while also forcing the audience to recognize the unmitigated hell she went through to become at best, a legend, and at worst, a pop culture item.
Blonde is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ book of the same name. I’m currently reading it, and from where my bookmark sits (about halfway) this reinvigoration of Monroe’s personhood is not due entirely to Dominik. Oates’ novel bounces from stream of consciousness to classic narrative to surreal prose, while always keeping Monroe’s internal monologue front and center. It is made very clear that her motivations are pure, and that a world set up for women to do as they’re told makes a sorta-orphan’s jump from obscurity to stardom that much more ripe for exploitation.
The film doesn’t spend as much time in Monroe’s childhood as the novel, instead mostly focusing on the superstar’s ascent, and the almost literal parades of men who could only see her as a fuckable product. It’s depicted in very frank and very gross ways, as is the point. Individual mileage may vary on this sort of thing, but not a second of Monroe’s trauma is made sexy or titillating. Much the opposite in fact. “Sweet Jesus, look at the ass on that little girl” exclaims one of her potential employers, to no resistance from his peers at all.
The dark magic of Blonde comes in its brutality. No punches are pulled in depicting what awful terrors Monroe endured. The film opens with a rape, one which is frequently thought about by our heroine and depicted in upsetting detail every time. There are two abortions depicted in absolutely horrifying detail (featuring explicit shots from inside Monroe’s vagina, if you can believe that). Every man she encounters leers, makes a pass, or straight up assaults her. Yet through it all Monroe is not shown to have a victim’s mentality. She is often the smartest person in the room, and almost universally the hardest worker. She is perfectly aware of the power she does not have, as well as the power she does have, even if it’s wielded in a world that is not in her favor. Her obvious intellect being paired with an oppressive world makes the violence enacted upon her that much harder to stomach, while also making her successes and a handful of those rare, fleeting moments of happiness that much more effective.
Many will ask which aspects of the story are true, and the answer is all of it. Facts are smattered throughout, as well as fabrications, but the truth exists throughout. We need only look at movies like The Favourite as a guide on how to navigate this realm. Most everyone in that movie is a real person, but that movie didn’t happen. Even so, there is plenty of history to be gained through it. With that film as well as Blonde, it’s the context that gives it truth, and both Oates and Dominik have provided proper context if you’re willing to engage with it. There are real world characters contained within the film, but only a few are named. The Joe DiMaggio stand-in is never named, while Arthur Miller is only referred to as “The Playwright” until much later in the film. JFK shows up for a scene, and even though his image has somehow remained squeaky clean despite his commonly known reputation as a real sonofabitch, those days are over. He’s depicted here in the most disgusting way, and that’s fine by me because politicians are bastards.
The film itself is gorgeous. Those who love Dominik’s hard-to-define style will recognize a few hallmarks, but to say this is reminiscent of any of his previous work would be a mischaracterization. The length and depth of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are there, as is the raw frankness of Killing Them Softly, but new this time around is a layer of surrealism that evokes both David Lynch and Leos Carax. In fact, with its Vangelis-meets-Badalamenti score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and its intentional usage of melodrama, Blonde is perhaps the most Lynchian non-Lynch film to come out in ages. And when I say “Lynchian” I don’t just mean “weird, but I need clicks.” The nomenclature fits.
Dominik has fun with the color as well as the aspect ratio, dipping from color to black & white at a moment’s notice, often switching the aspect ratio multiple times in a single scene. It gives everything a heightened feel, but is by no means distracting. Somehow this alchemy works, drawing us into this very fictional, very non-fictional world. Transitions are showy. One example being the edge of a bed, sheets draping over it, slowly fading into the image of a waterfall. A few moments copy from existing footage of Monroe, either by inserting Ana de Armas into existing footage or recreating the footage entirely (as far as I could tell). These scenes have a sense of documentary realism to them, made all the more real by de Armas’ stellar performance.
Ana de Armas is not who I’d immediately pick to play Marilyn Monroe, but now that I’ve seen it I cannot imagine anyone else doing the job. Despite a few moments where her natural accent shines through, she is spot on. She looks and sounds exactly like the Hollywood legend. This is up there with Taron Egerton’s Elton John or, more recently, Austin Butler’s Elvis Presley, in that they managed to embody their character without just doing a mere impression. In this way, the small lapses of accent feel purposeful. For Blonde to work, just like Rocketman and Elvis, the recreation cannot be exact. If we wanted straight facts we’d watch a documentary. But here in these larger than life stories we find truth. It might not be factual, but it is true. It may not be what happened, but it’s exactly what Monroe, and so many other starry-eyed hopefuls experienced.
Also, Blonde pisses people off and I am personally a fan of movies that piss people off.
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Written by Andrew Dominik, Joyce Carol Oates
Starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel
Rated NC-17, 166 minutes