Andrew Dominik’s latest film, ‘Blonde,’ centres around the life of Marilyn Monroe, and since its release it has caused some serious controversy. Generally critics are mixed in their reviews of the film, of which the defining feature seems to be Ana de Armas’s visceral, if not slightly haunting, performance. On a general note, the film itself is shot and organised differently. The lack of a linear narrative makes the film more immersive, but also harder to get a clearer grip on the story and Marilyn… which I suppose mirrors her real-life mystery. Maybe this lack of clarity was meant to reflect Marilyn’s fragile state of mind, especially towards the end of the film. Whether the film successfully got into Marilyn’s psyche is still under debate, but in the meantime, let’s have a look at some other moments in the film.
The film opens in black and white, a trick used by Dominik throughout the film. This seems to indicate particularly low moments in Marilyn’s life, perhaps explaining why her childhood is only seen in black and white. A theme that endures from this point in the film is the debate about who her father is, and her abandonment by her mother. This theme resurfaces throughout the film in Marilyn’s calling of her husband’s ‘daddy’ and her general questioning about her lineage. While other people’s influence on Marilyn throughout the film ebb and flow, the figure of her father remains, in a somewhat overbearing way. Already Marilyn is slave to the thought/memory of a man. Another theme that endures.
The use of black and white also adds to the nightmarish, and almost horrific, nature of the film. Monroe screams and wails frequently, as if she is featuring in some kind of horror film. The irony is, the horror film, as we are told to believe, is actually her life. The scenes with her mother evoke that of horror a film, as well as her abortion. Surrounded by men, as she is for majority of the film, Marilyn is subject, and almost forced, into having an abortion. She runs away in terror, whilst still in her hospital gown and struggles to find a way out. It reads like a scene in a horror film where the heroine is being subject to some sort of lobotomy and cannot break free.
Speaking of the abortion stuff.
Seeing the baby, and having it to talk to Marilyn is very strange, and only adds to her suffering. The second baby berates Marilyn for aborting the first one, and asks her ‘you won’t hurt me this time will you?’ It claims it’s the same egg, only making Marilyn suffer further through her guilty. I am not sure what this adds to the film, and am unsure how relevant it is, especially when there are bigger machines out there that cause Marilyn’s distress. These should be focused on and held to account. The way in which she miscarries this child also feels unfair. She trips and falls accidentally, which results in her miscarriage. Yet again, the use of the baby in the womb serves only to make Marilyn look guilty of killing her child, adding even more to her downward spiral.
Even though, in the aforementioned abortion scene, the focus is on Marilyn’s abortion, she is heavily exploited in this scene. There is one shot where, we see the doctor performing the abortion, from inside Marilyn. It is quite uncomfortable, and makes the audience wonder where interest becomes obsession. Do we really need to see inside Marilyn? Surely that interest is going a bit too far.
The film is pretty much seen through the male gaze, with Marilyn being the focus and centre. The scene where she stands on the grate, and her skirt billows, goes on for quite a while, panning from her legs to the male spectators. We know what the shot is, we know how she was perceived in her films, in which she portrayed fictional characters, do we need that as well to such a degree in a biopic… if we can describe this film as a biopic. The frequent nudity links to this as well, and as well as exploiting Marilyn, it exploits de Armas, as it is her body on screen.
Take the JFK scene for example. It feels unnecessarily graphic, we do not really need to see Marilyn fellating JFK, Dominik could have used other techniques to suggest that that is what happened. There is no conclusive evidence to say that this happened in real life, so from this scene it is unclear what Dominik was trying to accomplish. It does not allow Monroe or her memory any dignity. If he was trying to highlight Marilyn’s exploitation and suffering, then every other moment in the film ticked that box.
The film does not allow her much agency, so instead all we see is her suffering at the hands of one man, and then another. The difficulty is, if Dominik is trying to be true to life, then he probably has it right. However, the film is not true to life in some respects and cannot be hailed as a traditional biopic. Perhaps for this reason, Dominik should have tried to allow Marilyn some agency and some dignity, instead of infantilising her for over two hours. Not once is it mentioned that she set up her own production company, a plot point that has historical basis, and gives Marilyn the agency to push back against the men who wronged her.
So, in conclusion I am not really sure what to make of it all. This is probably down to the nature of the film as mentioned before, it is not a traditional biopic, it does not have a strongly linear narrative, and because of my reservations I am unsure what the filming is trying to achieve if anything. It does try to offer a window into Monroe’s life, the window itself being painted with the male gaze. What I am sure of though, is that it does not prioritise the subject… at times it side-lines her, robs her of dignity and ultimately turns her into a passive figure… when it does not need to do that ALL of the time. Dominik’s Marilyn is effectively the characters that she played onscreen, a breathy, blonde bombshell. Not much else is added to her, she is not multidimensional. That is probably the greatest flaw of the film. After over two hours, Marilyn remains a mystery… and maybe one best left alone.
Thanks for reading!