Every once in a while you find yourself asking several times throughout a film, “who is this even for?” Yes basically every movie will find its audience and there is something great about that, but at the same time there are those films that you are just baffled by. Andrew Dominik who is best known for directing 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a western epic that deconstructed the male ego and the myth of the American outlaw. Well apparently Dominik felt his viewpoint on the fragile male ego would best be suited being applied to the story of one of America’s most well known female icons. Marilyn Monroe is one of the most recognizable faces to ever grace the big screen. A hollywood legend whose story has been told over and over again. Books, movies, tv specials all of them have covered the tragic actress. Most of them have also only skimmed the surface. It is practically impossible to fully understand the voice of someone who was silenced for years. One thing they all home in on though is the tragedy she faced. Whether it be through addiction, the hands and violence of men or just the whole Hollywood system destroying her, every new adaptation takes it on. There even seems to be a whole new generation of young people who only know her as a starlet with a painful demise and not the wonderful career she had as a pure entertainer. You are more likely to come across someone who knows her for being a victim than has actually seen “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” or “Some Like It Hot.” Sure you may seem Instagram posts dedicated to her and outrage when a reality star decides to wear her dress to the Met Gala, but so few today really know how much of a star she truly was. This is one of the many things that makes BLONDE, the latest take on the starlet so frustrating. A sort of fictional nightmarish approach to the star has so little focus on respecting its subject and more hell bent on reminding us how beaten up she was. The film isn’t venturing towards tragedy porn, it fully embraces it at every angle. BLONDE doesn’t need to be your typical biopic (even though it avoids it so much it ends up falling into the same traps), but it also never needed to be this exhausting. A product of repugnant male gaze, the film is a perfect lesson in some things and people truly need to be left alone.
A near three hour epic that promises a different approach to the generic biopic already fails when it starts right at the beginning of Marilyn’s (real name Norma Jean) life. It the film starts at birth you just hope it doesn’t feel the need the need at death (you overestimate this director’s creativity). Young Norma Jean (Lily Fisher) lives with her single mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson being cartoon evil) in lower Hollywood. Gladys a drunk spends her days telling her daughter about her father who is apparently a famous movie star that will one day return for her. His picture hangs on her bedroom wall. Norma’s upbringing is already a tragic one, her mother regrets the day she was born and the man who left her leaving her to try and drown her daughter as well as let their house burn down with them inside. Maybe these moments would be powerful and uncomfortable if Nicholson didn’t feel like she was straight out of Walk Hard (this entire movie could be a parody) with her whole “I hate you” attitude that is just plain redundant. It also doesn’t help that before we even see her Ana de Armas’ narration comes in to tell us about her upbringing. Seriously for a movie hellbent on being different it is all so obnoxiously familiar.
It isn’t long until we are fully introduced to Ana de Armas’ Marilyn. An actress who is quickly finding her way into household names, de Armas may have the look and attitude down, but most importantly she as an actress is constantly curious and expanding her abilities. It makes even more of a shame when she gets handed such a mediocre script from Dominik and adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ book of the same name. Marilyn when we first see her has dropped the Norma Jean name for the screen and is determined to become a star based solely on her talents as an actress. The world of men however have different ideas. It has been known for decades that Marilyn is one of the original (or at least most famous) Hollywood “bombshells” beginning as a “pinup girl” Marilyn lived a life of men gawking at her at every move. Dominik knows we all know this but instead of finding even the bit of decency towards a sensitive subject decides to continue the exploitation with some ridiculous camera work. Note a scene where a director ignores her audition and just focusing on “the great ass” she has only for Dominik to zoom in on de Armas butt as she walks and fades away on it. After several moments of this (seriously count the times this guy reuses the same zoom shot) you dismiss the notion that he has an ironic point in doing so and instead you fully realize the man just wanted to ogle de Armas and had the perfect platform to do so. Here is a director that has abandoned what made previous films special and instead uses film student techniques to get his own kicks out of this. This is not to say another male director could not have done a better job, but it certainly doesn’t make you want to see what another one would do.
There has been a lot that has been said about the NC-17 rating of this film, and while everyone will have their own views going into this film it should be noted that a rating that is basically seen as a black mark has only heightened the talk around the film. For a film that features multiple rape scenes, abortion procedures, and constant physical violence towards a woman the notion that many are flocking to see it based on its rating as if its some sort of peep show continues the off putting of this entire thing. Now a filmmaker can’t choose people’s preconceived notions of a film, but it certainly doesn’t help the case when his directing, editing and writing in a way that almost proves the audience right. The film has many horrendous moments but they are done with such little respect you wonder where Dominik’s admiration for Marilyn even is. While there are moments that install de Armas into infamous movie moments in her career, there is little time to appreciate the magnificent actress she was. No this nontraditional biopic is too hellbent on taking Ms. Monroe’s relationship section of her Wikipedia page and dragging it for its entirety. This could be through the infamous baseball player who beat her senselessly, or the playwright who used her secrets to formulate scripts, and then of course the former and now deceased president who used her as a toy to constantly jerk him off while a rocket blasts off on the TV in the background (cue eyeroll). All of this is known, and no amount of creative editing (there is none) or aspect ratio and color change (its nauseating) can make up for the fact that this is an endless, boring and abusive film.
One small silver lining is that even if you find yourself closing your eyes to avoid many torturous moments you will still be treated with a haunting score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Dominik who has worked with Cave before on several concert documentaries knows to just sit back and let the two do their thing. Cave and Ellis deliver a score that is obviously nightmarish but also one that feels like it is floating in the stars. Think Donnie Darko meeting Interstellar. This is the kind of score that you know is great because it also finds a way to stand away from the mess it exist amongst. Above all else this is a film for its lead star. Ana de Armas, even with a script that has her calling everyone “daddy” still finds moments to shine in her own way that is removed from Dominik. A scene where she is trying to bring the character of Marilyn into her that way she can remove the sadness is practically captivating even in its tragedy. It is one of the few times where the film shows what it may have been trying to do all along. To acknowledge and respect the trauma its character went through on a daily basis. To finally take the time to listen to the women so many (including this film) ignores and belittles. But these moments are all too little, and they only exist in a parable of disregard. Marilyn Monroe will always exists in our lives one way or the other and her story may be deserved to be told, but if there is one thing to do to help protect her it is to make sure nobody like Dominik ever gets his hands on her again.
BLONDE WILL BE RELEASED ON NETFLIX SEPTEMBER 28