Andew Dominik’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in his latest film, “Blonde,” has been drawing fierce criticism. They say it’s misogynistic, “exploitative,” sensational, even abusive. Planned Parenthood even chimed in by stating that the film is “anti-abortion propaganda,” that it contributes to the “abortion stigma,” particularly because it shows a “CGI-talking fetus, depicted to look like a fully formed baby.”
There are several major issues with these criticisms of the film. First, this is not a biopic. Rather, the film is explicitly is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 eponymous novel, in which Oates completely admits that hers is a work of fiction: “Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation.”
Secondly, and most importantly, this film is not so much about Marilyn Monroe but about the notion of personae, both acting and sexual, and how this strange metaphysical make up has been embodied by Marilyn Monroe.
Thirdly, “Blonde” does not claim truth, but delves deeply into an American consciousness and its relation to the mythology of Marilyn Monroe—something which, now, is inextricable from her very being.
And finally, “Blonde” is primarily an aesthetic film that eschews judgment, except perhaps, judgment against those who repeatedly victimized Monroe. The Hollywood industry as well as the Democratic political establishment (particularly, JFK) are not portrayed favorably. In fact, these are the monsters and lecherous men the viewer comes to understand took hold of Monroe.
In the introduction to Oates’ novel, Elaine Showalter makes an excellent point about the creation of the Marilyn myth. Oates combines “three feminine personae: First, there was Norma Jeane Baker, the wholesome normal girl with a naïve, vulnerable heart . . . second persona was Marilyn Monroe, the pinup, bombshell, sex symbol, and movie goddness . . . third persona, the Blonde, is a symbol, the pure and virginal creature of fairy tale and religious parable.” All of these aspects are faithfully depicted in Dominik’s film.
Ana de Arnas plays Marilyn Monroe and critics have had enough sense to praise her performance despite their distaste for the film. The subtlety and intensity with which de Arnas embodies Monroe is beautiful, yet at the same time, it is raw and wounded. Much like the novel, the film moves in a slightly linear fashion through her life. We witness 6-year-old Norma Jeane, living in terror of her mentally insane mother. The look of embodied and palpable fear on the child’s face is difficult to watch. We want to save her from the clutches of this evil woman.
Despite this brief chronology, the film follows the undulating lines of Oates’ novel. One scene blends almost ethereally into another; aspect ratio as well as the movement between black and white and color frequently changes, as if to signify the dreamy quality of several personae embodied by Monroe. Who is this woman? Is she Norma Jeane? Marilyn? Blonde? None of these? This is the question that persists throughout the film.
There are also suggestions of love and the erotic but these are always tinged with fear, uncertainty, and hatred. Marilyn/Norma Jeane meets two men: Charlie Chaplin, Jr. aka Cass and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. aka Eddy. Both men have their own problems since they are sons of famous movie stars and have been or felt neglected by them. Marilyn/Norma Jeane enters into an emotional and sexual threesome with them, and paradoxically, she seems to be finding happiness.
Dominik’s choice of cinematography in the sexual scenes of the threesome transcends the physical space. While Marilyn/Norma Jeane embodies both pinup and female erotic sexuality, Cass and Eddy embody an aesthetic capture of gay male masculinity and sexuality. (This is in stark contrast with the raw masculinity of the Ex-Athlete, meant to be Joe DiMaggio.)
Here, three nude bodies undulate and blend into one another, they freeze in certain movements, looking like a mix of modern ballet, Baroque paintings, and Greek sculptures depicting myths. But this beauty is clearly meant to be perverse and any love is tinged with violence. As Eddy, to put it crudely, fucks Norma Jeane, Cass looks both lovingly and cruelly at her and says: “Were you waiting for us? Norma? Were you starved for us? But don’t be nice to us.” Cass and Eddy are vipers, and there is no real love anywhere in the room for Norma Jeane.
“Blonde” does not hold back. It is a difficult film to watch precisely because of that. Its intensity is particularly present in Norma Jeane’s emotional state and her relationship with her unborn babies. This film is an atmospheric horror story, and the two separate abortion scenes testify to that. Norma Jeane is pregnant and chooses to have an abortion, at first because she doesn’t want her mother’s mental illness passed on to her child. But as she is waiting on the operating table, she begins to change her mind. The abortion has been arranged by a Hollywood producer, and the helplessness Norma Jeane feels is palpable. This woman has no free will!
The second abortion scene is particularly powerful. The point of view is that of the fetus and we wince and want to look away as the surgeon’s tools of abortion and annihilation are entering Norma Jeane’s body, as the suction begins. It is pure horror.
Joyce Carol Oates is known for writing Gothic tales and stories that are always hovering on the border between violence and love. A woman is stuck in some world that has been created and carved out for her by others: often abusive mothers, fathers, and lovers. The woman wants desperately to be saved, and Oates generally adds a fairy tale component to her stories. Dominik’s depiction of Norma Jeane’s constant desire to meet her father, whom she sees as the ultimate savior, is always hovering as a possibility but is crushed at the very end, when, in Oates words, “There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning sepia light.”
“Blonde” is a film that may not invite a second viewing. In this, it is similar to Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” for its intensity is purely aesthetic, which reaches certain experiential conclusions. Yet its dream-like cinematography, the blend of violence, melancholy, and beauty are undeniable. We witness a woman torn between different identities that have been created for her, and yet assuming these identities seemed to her to have been the only way she could be recognized or seen as a human being.
Tellingly, in the film, Norma Jeane is the happiest when there is a baby in her womb. She desperately wants order and purpose. At one point, the baby in the womb speaks to her, and one can’t help but think this is the little girl, Norma Jeane, trying so hard to find love. She speaks in Oates’ novel: “For there is no meaning to life apart from the movie story.” Fairy tale is by its very definition not real. For Norma Jeane, love never arrives, only death.