The word “fictional” is writer/director Andrew Dominick’s sword and shield when it comes to Blonde (which you can now stream on Netflix), an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about the icon Marilyn Monroe. Through the grace of that magical term, there is an implication that the truth need not be followed as a guide. As such, the texture of Monroe’s actual life doesn’t matter much here, not when put up against creative ambitions.
I bet, at the outset, that it feels bold, exhilarating, and empowering to play with an audience’s institutional memory of an icon, skillfully recreating the moments most familiar, and then twisting it all to try and say something profound about fear, abandonment, and the public’s insatiable lust for celebrities to give more than they should or even can. But somewhere along the line, the thread gets lost with Blonde. Somewhere along the line, it becomes clear that ambition should have been tempered by curiosity, flexibility, and above all else, empathy (this is, after all, a real person who has been historically misrepresented and misunderstood), making way for a fuller story that might have felt less exploitative and mean.
As revealed in Christina Newland’s much-discussed interview for Sight And Sound, Dominick wanted to tell a story about the effects of childhood trauma on a person’s life and he found Oates’ book and Monroe’s life to be a helpful vessel. Monroe’s triumphs were of no interest or use, something you can sense when you sit through the film and which is made abundantly clear by his own comments in the interview when asked about specific missing moments of triumph, tenacity, and guts in this telling.
“That stuff is not really what the film is about. It’s about a person who is going to be killing themself. So it’s trying to examine the reasons why they did that. It’s not looking at her lasting legacy. I mean, she’s not even terribly concerned with any of that stuff. If you look at Marilyn Monroe, she’s got everything that society tells us is desirable. She’s famous. She’s beautiful. She’s rich. If you look at the Instagram version of her life, she’s got it all. And she killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing. It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength.”
As should be clear by now, in this portrait of Monroe, it is not useful to present her as anything more than frazzled, damaged, and eventually defeated by a life wherein she was ceaselessly objectified and basically tortured by everyone she met, everything she did, and especially the unfulfilled promise of ever meeting her father.
The thing is, it really is crude to contort a real person’s life for the act of telling a preordained story that benefits from putting on blinders to nuance, no matter how long ago or publicly they lived. Creative license should be granted, but this is a question of should, not could.
What’s the point of the imagined and poisonous three-way relationship with the adult sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson? How can you profess that this story is about why someone killed themself when you completely make up an action that necessitated that? Another Dominick quote from that amazing interview is relevant here: “Nobody really knows what the fuck happened. So it’s all fiction anyway, in my opinion.” How freeing, how cynical.
What about the guilt-filled dialogue delivered by a fetus to Monroe over the forced abortion she had had earlier in the film (one of two such scenes filled with physical restraint, assault, and a choice to show the procedure from inside Monroe’s vagina), or the traumatic blowjob scene with JFK and its violent conclusion? At what point do these big stylistic choices veer from the artistic to a violation and even a seeming finger wag at the subject?
The criticism of actress Ana de Armas for occasionally slipping out of her breathy Monroe voice into her own natural sound is legitimate but also telling. In every other way, de Armas embodies the icon, holding our attention while matching the film’s overall visual fidelity to Monroe’s life which was born from copious amounts of research. But that one failing (and it is a slight failing, to be clear) is magnified while some have glossed over Dominick’s decision to put his actress into a story wherein she seems as though she is constantly in a field trying to escape a lightning storm that she can’t quite comprehend.
This is a story devoid of credit for Monroe’s talent, wit, and hard work — no surprise considering Dominick’s feelings about her work as expressed in that same Sight And Sound interview. Assumptions, torture traps, omissions, negative focuses, and distracting visual choices and gimmicks made to stand in for actual character depth, that’s what Dominick layers atop an astonishing life filled with extraordinary heartache, complexity, accomplishment, and turbulence brought on by a world that struggled to see her as more than a 2D object of desire. Rather than showing her work through her frustration before ultimately succumbing, we see her frailty and fear as she circles the drain on a punishing life. Here, Monroe is a 2D object of sorrow whose also made to be naked, violated, and smudged with blood and tears, crying out like a child for her Daddy, whom she sees in every man who drains a little more light from her with savagery and broken promises. This is a brutal interpretation, too free of guardrails for its and our own good.
I get it, the word fictional protects all of this from being taken too literally as a true biopic and examination of Marilyn Monroe’s iconography and existence, but who will remember to hold onto that label when shown such vivid recreations of the highlights and lowlights of a historic life? Like Monroe, this film is flashy and attention-getting. To some, it’ll serve as a spark to dive deeper, but it’ll be enough to satiate the curiosity of many, many others who might see this version and lazily accept it as fact. Whether that is, ultimately, on the audience or the filmmaker is, I suppose, a matter of perspective, but the end result is still a disservice to the legacy of a real person (the newish Netflix doc on her is way more illuminating about who she actually was).
If the world can’t remember Marilyn Monroe without perverting her memory, then perhaps we owe her the blessing of being forgotten. That might be better than whatever this is.