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The Netflix film Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel, a fictionalised biography of Marilyn Monroe, opens to a young mother, Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), and her seven-year-old daughter, Norma Jean (Lily Fisher). Gladys gives her daughter a surprise birthday gift: the framed photo of a man in their bedroom. She points towards it and says, “That man is your father.”
Norma has never seen him. That moment both decides and frames her life. She will grow up to become Marilyn Monroe: a Hollywood star, a national icon, a sex symbol. Millions will desire her, including the American President, but Monroe will never be able to outsize Norma: a seven-year-old girl longing for her father.
That absence has ruined the mother-daughter relationship, too. Gladys is doped, irritable, unhinged. One evening, she tries to drown Norma in the bathtub. Her neighbours drop her off at an orphanage. Filmmaker Andrew Dominik devotes 17 minutes to the evocative opening segment. It makes sense, for this movie seems to explore the tension between Norma and Monroe.
And then, you blink and Norma has become a…pin-up model. As if nothing happened in the next decade. As if a young girl experiencing foster homes, grieving her parents’ loss, and living with strangers didn’t impact her. But it did. Monroe suffered sexual abuse and married at the age of 16. These elisions feel even more strange, as Blonde has a runtime of 167 minutes. This problem defines the movie: Its time and energy are misspent and misdirected.
Monroe’s (Ana de Armas) acting journey is smudged, too. She flits from auditions to screenings to the big league. We’ve no idea about how many years have passed, how many films she’s done, or how she rose in the industry. Like her growing up years, it also lacks a crucial link: for a girl abandoned by her parents, how did the dizzying fame affect her? Blonde is marred by a constant lack of intellectual inquiry.
We get brief bits about her challenges: She’s subtly mocked for referencing Dostoyevsky during an audition, a director comments on her bottom when she’s out of his earshot, and a powerful studio executive, “Mr. Z”, presumably modelled on Darryl F. Zanuck, rapes her. These scenes don’t go beyond the fact that Hollywood is a misogynistic industry. This isn’t a news flash. What we need to know is how it affects her.
This is a ‘passive voice’ biopic. Things happen to Monroe; she barely does them – except when she’s on a self-destructive spree. People waltz in and out of her life, treating the actress like a revolving door. Dominik achieves this, again and again, through choppy and hurried scenes. At one point, Monroe meets with her mother at a hospital, which segues to her filming Don’t Bother to Knock to her popping pills to talking to her agent who calls it a crap movie, to a new setting: LA’s Actor Circle, 1952.
Another litany of scenes: Für Elise on the piano; Monroe dancing with one of the two men in the room, Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr; then an overlong and dramatic threesome with Cass and his friend, Eddy; then another threesome; then a romantic ‘throuple’; then them pledging that they’ll always remain together like a “triangle”, referring to the constellation Gemini (which isn’t technically a triangle but whatever); then a pregnancy; then she wanting to abort the baby, then changing her mind; and then – another blink – she sitting across Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), referred to as “Ex-Athlete”. Cass and Eddy have vanished, and Blonde has entered a new phase.
Some films are so deep in their heads – so convinced of their genius, so in love with their own voice, so disconnected from the outside world, that they need a moderating intervention, mostly through an editor. No such luck here. Monroe meets DiMaggio again in her hotel room. She’s surprised, as she was hoping to meet her father. The aspect ratio increases, accommodating her anticipation. But DiMaggio proposes marriage to her, and even though there’s zero indication of their deepening bond, she agrees. Ditto her relationship with Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). When he first sees her read his lines, he disapproves of her performance. But then, it takes one conversation for him to fall for her.
As Monroe’s agency was robbed at every turn, I watched this movie with a sense of growing unease. Blonde is underpinned by a disconcerting irony: It does to Monroe what Hollywood did to her. Take the famous skirt billowing scene. It drags and drags, with the camera fixated on her crotch and bottom. It’s one thing for a drama to show a sexist culture; it’s quite the other for it to be sexist itself. Several scenes feature Monroe alone in her home naked. The whole thing reminds you of how male authors describe women characters in trashy novels.
Let me tell you the film’s other obsession: shots of a fetus. Nearly every half an hour. A normal fetus, an indifferent fetus, a sad fetus, a dying fetus, a bloody fetus, a talking fetus. The fetus recurs so much that I half expect it to bag a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the next year’s Oscars. There are also repeated flashes of her giving birth – shot through her vagina. These bits don’t take us close to Monroe, the person or the star, but exude a film school ‘Avant-Garde’ feeling. It first seems awkward, then embarrassing, then tedious.
Maybe showing the actual Monroe was never the intention, as she’s constantly seen through someone else’s lens: her mother, her partners, her collaborators. Blonde turns her fondness for her father into borderline obsession, even linking her suicide to that yearning. This constant external gaze reduces the actress to being needy, desperate, and naïve. Once more, there’s a difference between the world making her feel like that, as opposed to the movie itself.
Blonde constantly tries to shock. Right till the end when John F. Kennedy appears. Dominik takes 10 minutes to convey a simple disturbing fact: Kennedy dehumanising Monroe. It’s not enough that the Secret Service agents drag her to the Presidential suite; it’s not enough that Kennedy forces her to give him a blowjob when he’s on the phone; it’s not enough that that scene plays in a theatre; it’s not enough that he rapes her; the sequence finally gets over when the agents drag her (again) out of the room.
These demerits drown out Blonde’s strengths.
Armas gives a compelling dramatic performance. It’s the closest we get to Monroe throughout the movie. The cinematography is impressive, especially during the night sequences, rendering Monroe literally luminous. And even though the editing doesn’t check the film’s indulgences, it employs some ingenious cuts to show her increasing disorientation. Sometimes the writing shines, too, when Monroe tells DiMaggio that the movies, following scripts and distinct character motivations, are much easier to follow than real-life.
But like the men around her, these bits appear and vanish, leaving us with a tedious drama that unwittingly justifies the actress’ life: that Munroe couldn’t find freedom, couldn’t find solace – not as Norma, not as Marilyn, not as a partner, not even as a character in her own biopic purportedly trying to give her due.