Something's Got to Give
Prior to watching Blonde – Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ imagined life of Marilyn Monroe – I had no opinions on the late Norma Jeane. After seeing it I still don’t. Her onscreen persona – tits and teeth; a pouting, breathless ingénue; male fantasy personified – always signified to me, and I suspect many others, a certain vacuity.
Fans of her output will beg to differ, suggesting she either sent up the archetype she’d created by overplaying her sexuality or investing her thankless sex bomb persona with ironic self-awareness, but for the rest of us Monroe is a playful caricature of womanhood – a parody of a seductress. She could only have been a movie star because only the movies could package this brand of walking-talking artifice and sell it to the masses as exceptional. Monroe, one imagines, thought so too – but heavy are the breasts that support a career, and by all accounts she hated the absurd product she’d created.
Which makes the rumbling of discontent that’s accompanied the release of Blonde that much harder to understand – as it too hates the Monroe persona – seeing it as a vehicle for personal ruin and a target for seedy exploitation; a persona it seeks to destroy. It is an artful – sometimes pretentiously overwrought, and palpably aggressive attack on the male gaze and the portrait of a woman destroyed by the lust she induced in overstimulated males. It’s so aggressive in fact, and you might think masculine with it, that it tears through its ambitions and emerges as a sort of negative image of the Monroe legend.
By the time it’s over, and Marilyn – used, abused and violated; Dominik’s camera allowing for no dignity and no refuge; lies hollowed out and lonely, her lifelong Freudian nightmare at an end, she’s as empty a vessel as her bright and buxom avatar. The title’s reduction of Norma Jeane to a single characteristic is in keeping with its manifesto to strip back the legend to its empty core. A three hour pseudo-biopic that leaves you with a human-shaped hole in the narrative is a morbid curiosity, but those hoping to meet the real Norma Jean will be disappointed. The pills are on the bedside table but there’s no one home.
Is Blonde the thing it purports to critique – it is misogynist and exploitative? The narrative certainly subjects a transformed and committed Ana de Armas to many indignities – fictionalised sequences designed to reproduce, in essence, Monroe’s own, e.g. her manhandled delivery by secret service agents to JFK’s hotel room for an impersonal blow job (does anyone doubt the President saw Monroe as anything but a disposable fuck object?). But had the movie covered de Armas or cut away from the alleged assaults to her body and mind, it would have been a strangely coy and sanitised affair; an argument that pulls its punches.
Instead, Dominik goes all in – baying male spectators given a demonic aspect, partners portrayed as hypocritical, aloof and cold, nudity coded as vulnerability rather than sexualised. De Armas has reportedly balked at the idea that her nakedness will become go-to masturbatory material on the internet, but this of course would de-contextualise those images and assumes a certain predatory shamelessness in the film’s male spectators. There’s colon cancer surgery more erotic than Blonde. It’s a movie designed to kill erections and induce shame in anyone carrying an X and Y chromosome.
That some won’t be able to tell the difference between the lustful male gaze and its carefully constructed antithesis is hardly surprising in a culture where we’ve long wilfully misunderstood the difference between, say, a joke’s theme and its target, but Dominik and de Armas deserve credit for making a bold and uncompromising horror movie about a woman used as raw material for others’ fantasies.
Aesthetically, thematically – Blonde is a companion piece to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – the dream-like discombobulation of which it sometimes recalls. Only the once-living object of its fascination – a woman it fails to find or flesh out, leaves it wanting. We’re left with a sense of what was done to Norma Jeane but not who she was. Perhaps she didn’t know herself; a lifetime of being told what you are will do that to you. But you might think it curious that both a novelist and filmmaker could invest so much in the investigation and come up with nothing but pretty pictures and ugly spectators.
Blonde is streaming on Netflix.