The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Before even watching this film, I had, regrettably, a pretty good idea of the answer to this question. One look at The Guardian’s headline describing it as “a hellish vision of Marilyn and her monsters”, Independent’s one star review calling it “dull trauma porn with no idea what it’s trying to say” and NY Times’s claim that it is “exploiting Marilyn for old times’ sake”, and you can gauge a pretty good idea of the film’s overall tone. However, I tried to approach my viewing of it with an open mind despite this…
Netflix’s Blonde (2022), directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Ana de Armas, is the latest in a long line of cinematic attempts to explore the life and demise of cultural icon Marilyn Monroe, real name Norma Jeane Baker. Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates defined as a fictionalised take on the life of Marilyn Monroe, Netflix describes the film as a “fictional portrait of Marilyn Monroe [that] boldly reimagines the tumultuous private life of the Hollywood legend, and the price she paid for fame”.
The film opens with flashes of Marilyn standing over a subway air vent with her white dress billowing out around her, a recreation of her most iconic image. It then cuts to 1933 Los Angeles and Marilyn, or rather Norma Jeane, as a child. We are introduced to her mentally ill and abusive mother, her absent father who only exists to her through a portrait photo on the wall and then see her mother’s mental breakdown that leads to her hospitalisation and confinement in a mental institution. Here Lily Fisher, playing a young Norma Jeane, gives a heart-breaking performance that captures the pain of childhood abandonment as she is sent to an orphanage.
What then follows, however, is a vaguely linear narrative documenting her adult life of pin-up photoshoots, film roles, sexual assaults, marriages, pregnancies, miscarriages, abortions, affairs, presidential scandals and her eventual struggles with drugs and alcohol that led to her death. Intimately and carefully shot on what is meant to look like an old-fashioned film camera, the film is, for the most part, visually stunning to watch, with a grainy soft-focus creating glamourous and often ethereal images throughout. Also, with credit to the film’s hair, makeup and costume departments, De Armas is a convincing physical embodiment of Marilyn, with some of her most iconic looks (from her pink strapless ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ gown, to her more casual black turtleneck outfits) recreated with meticulous accuracy.
THE ‘IMAGE’ OF MARILYN
However, this close attention to the visual, while being one of the films strengths, is also one of its biggest problems. What Blonde has created as a result, is an overly stylised sequence of disjointed images through which De Armas moves as an animated caricature of Marilyn, devoid of anything beneath the superficial. Any of Marilyn’s signature luminosity and charm is portrayed as merely skin deep; most of her accompanying dialogue presents her as either cluelessly ditsy or damaged and fragile and is delivered by De Armas with either a dazed expression of anguished vulnerability or outright wide-eyed hysteria.
According to Dominik, the director, this obsession with the ‘image’ of Marilyn was deliberate. For him, all the iconic photographs of Marilyn were the starting point for the film, stating in an interview, “I selected every image of Marilyn I could find and then tried to stage scenes around those images”. This explains the film’s decision to fluctuate between scenes in black & white and scenes in colour; they were dictated as such by whether it was a black & white or a colour photograph of Marilyn that inspired the scene. This confirmation that the film is essentially an animated recreation of photos of Marilyn seems to be at odds with what the film is claiming to achieve; the Netflix description that states an interest in the “private life” of Marilyn along with the quote on the movie poster that says she was “watched by all, seen by none”, seems to suggest the intention of a deeper exploration into her as a person… to really “see” her. Instead, it just recreates and reinforces these surface-level stereotypes of her as a beautiful yet damaged sex symbol, derived solely from the images that were “watched by all”.
PRESENTING FEMALE TRAUMA
But perhaps even more disturbing is the film’s, often grossly distasteful and graphic, portrayal of female trauma. Writing for The Guardian, journalist Martha Gill notes that “there is scarcely a scene […] in which Monroe is not topless, crying, being raped or having a forced abortion”. Rather than being “gritty realism” or a criticism on the often violently misogynistic tendency of Hollywood, the film instead either glamourises and overly-sexualises these issues or approaches them with gratuitous violence or absurd surrealism that verges on the comedic. For example, take the multiple sexual assault scenes filmed tastelessly and the two graphic abortion scenes where on both occasions the point of view of the camera is momentarily inside her cervix… Or the ridiculous scene of her conversation with her own cartoon foetus that begs her not to abort it like she did the last one… Or the scenes of her stumbling nude around her house washing down pills with alcohol in the final moments of the film that depict the final moments of her life.
When questioned on these portrayals, Dominik simply states “I’m not concerned with being tasteful”, dismissing the scenes of sexual violence as something that “just happens, it’s almost glossed over”. He is not, as it turns out, even concerned with telling a female story, despite the continuous preoccupation with pregnancy, abortion, and miscarriage. Claiming that he “[doesn’t] see the film as essentially female” he instead considers it to be one of childhood trauma: a film “about an unloved child”.
For Marilyn in Blonde, although evidently affected by her mother’s mental illness, the main root of this childhood trauma is presented as the absence of her father. He is present in the first childhood scene we see of Marilyn as a picture on the wall, throughout the film in the form of a disembodied male voice often serving as the voiceover for Marilyn’s darkest moments, and then finally in the penultimate scene where his fabled image is seen in the clouds before the final shot of Marilyn’s dead body. This effectively presents the film’s theme of the inescapable and, in this case, fatal impact of childhood trauma and abandonment, however it also explicitly links the cycle of adult trauma that Marilyn endures to, simply, her ‘daddy issues’; any nuances and complexities in her story are reduced to this narrative driving force.
FACT VS FICTION?
Despite Dominik’s claim that the film is “all fiction”, the attention to factual elements of Marilyn’s life, often with painstaking accuracy, creates a strange blurring between the two. As discussed, the visual aspects of Marilyn are factually recreated with meticulous detail, but details like her mother’s mental illness, her absent father and her troubles with pregnancy are also based on fact; her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and hospitalised, Marilyn did not know her father in childhood, and she also suffered multiple miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy.
However, details about Marilyn the film decided to omit were any of her accomplishments as an intelligent and charismatic businesswoman with autonomy over her own career. Marilyn was a published poet, an avid reader, and a lover of literature therefore, following frustrations at being reduced to the ‘dumb blonde’ role in Hollywood, she set up her own production company which changed the structure of Hollywood studios that were able to dictate the roles of their stars. She was also an outspoken advocate for equality and voiced her support for Ella Fitzgerald, who in 1955 was banned from performing in clubs due to racial segregation, by promising to sit in the front row of her shows if the clubs allowed her to play.
The film depicts one scene of her demonstrating this intelligence where she shares her opinions on literature to a playwright, who she later goes on to marry, but for the most part it dismisses any of these traits in favour of endless scenes of trauma and abuse. This constructs Marilyn as nothing more than a terminally damaged victim… a depthless character as one-dimensional as the very photos that inspired the scenes.
SO, WHAT IS THE FILM ACTUALLY TRYING TO SAY?
Despite claiming the film’s fictious nature, within the very same interview Dominik states that it is a ‘’film about Marilyn Monroe’’. These contradictions suggest that he is drawing on this image of Marilyn and all her outdated overly sexualised stereotypes, borrowing details from her life with just enough accuracy and visual detail to be widely recognisable as her but assigning the story his own narrative that he wants to tell. He is essentially capitalising on this cultural fascination with female victimhood to present a generic and one-dimensional tale of childhood trauma, all while further exploiting the image of a real female life and another cultural fascination to the point of commodification, Marilyn Monroe, in the process. The added layer of glamourisation, forced aestheticism and over-sexualisation that largely indulges the male gaze makes this all the more sinister…
While Blonde is, for the most part, an aesthetic film that looks like an old glamorous photograph if you were to pause it at any point, it has merely used this image of Marilyn as a veneered vessel for pain and trauma (trauma stemming almost solely from an absent man in her life), with little to no attempt to look beneath the surface to the complex and multidimensional life of a woman and cultural icon who was more than just a commodified caricature.
Furthermore, claiming Blonde as fiction and denying that it is a female story does, not only, a disservice to Marilyn but also to all female victims of trauma such as sexual assault. This irresponsible dismissal by Dominik results in a film that perpetuates harmful and damaging stereotypes, for example around issues such as abortion, as well as adding to the exploitation Marilyn already experienced in life.
So, it appears that the Independent was right to call it a “dull trauma porn with no idea what it’s trying to say”, with, unfortunately, the outdated stereotypes of female victimhood and a real woman’s legacy paying the price.