Released: 28th September
Seen: 28th September
When you think about pop culture for long enough, inevitably you think about Marilyn Monroe. Her image, the perfect blonde hair and baby doll voice are iconic on a level that is practically impossible to describe. Her image is so well known that every female celebrity will, at some point, try to emulate it for a photoshoot. She’s a Halloween costume, a glossy image that has become a shorthand for fame and glamour… she’s also a woman who lived a life that was full of tragic moments that the public never knew about, or maybe they didn’t want to know. Slowly as time goes on, we’ve looked back on the life of Norma Jeane and learned more and more about the pain that hid behind the glamour. For years people have tried again and again to tell her story in many assorted ways, which leads us to Blonde… possibly the most exploitative version of the story ever told.
Blonde, based largely on the fiction novel of the same name by author Joyce Carol Oates, tells the story of Norma Jeane Mortenson AKA Marilyn Monroe (Ana De Armas) from her tragic childhood with an absent father and abusive mother to her career in Hollywood where she would be assaulted, raped and viewed as little more than an object by anyone who came near her. For two and a half hours we watch as this woman is put through trauma after trauma, each new horrific event played out for the camera in chronological order. There is little happiness in the life of this version of Norma Jeane, just sadness, misery and enough pain to make anyone wince in agony.
It’s clear from the start what Blonde is trying to do. It’s trying to be an exploration of how Norma Jeane was exploited by Hollywood, how the town just used her up as nothing more than a sex symbol when she could’ve been so much more. It’s trying to comment on the exploitation, call it out, show it for the horror that it was and show the effects it had on Norma Jeane… note the word TRYING. That’s clearly the intention, but what the film actually does is actually exploit the image of Marilyn Monroe repeatedly in order to create a two and a half hour tragedy porn film that climaxes with her suicide.
Playing out as a series of chronological vignettes, Blonde does at least try to do something different from the usual biopic which is almost admirable. It’s unique in how it presents Norma/Marilyn, filming everything like it was an old Hollywood film and alternating from black and white to colour film every now and then to create this classic feeling. It’s a visual style that suits the subject, showing Marilyn in the same style we remember her. It would also help thematically with juxtaposing that classic image and glamour with the harsh reality of Marilyn’s life… except this isn’t reality, this is based on a fiction novel that even the author says should not be viewed as a biography. No one apparently told the filmmakers because this is treated like a biopic and it’s a cruel one.
Blonde is cruel because every single scene, with maybe one exception (and it’s BARELY an exception), is just some exploitative trauma scene from Norma’s life. If we’re not watching Norma’s mother abuse her then we’re watching her husband abuse her or maybe some director could rape her over a desk or maybe she can have a few miscarriages played out like the scene of some horror film or maybe the president can rape her too… it’s endless, an endless parade of cruelty towards one of the most beloved figures of all time without any real reprieve or justification. Torture porn treats its main characters with more dignity than this thing does. Oh and that one scene that isn’t exploiting her trauma is still exploiting her body and her sexuality by throwing it all on screen and reducing Norma Jean to a sex object.
Now maybe all this could be for a point, after all if you want to talk about the exploitation of women then you have to at least toe up to the line of exploitation yourself but there doesn’t really seem to be a point here. It’s just an excuse to brutalise the image of Marilyn Monroe for a few hours by a director who never saw a Marilyn Monroe film before he adapted this book and proclaimed in a recent interview that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was about “Well Dressed Whores”.
Once you know that detail about the director it all clicks into place, the claims of Blonde being feminist or about how she was treated are a facade, it’s just some asshole using a dead woman as a plaything. There’s no care here from the man behind the camera, none whatsoever. He lingers on Marilyn’s body to the point where the film got a dreaded NC-17, he doesn’t miss a chance to focus on her body or on her screams of agony, sex or suffering are the two options the director wants to choose from and sometimes he’ll mix the two of them just for the fun of it. It feels dirty, trauma porn with no purpose behind it other than just the continued exploitation of an icon… and the woman playing her.
The only thing about Blonde that’s worth a damn is Ana De Armas who delivers a genuinely good performance as Norma Jeane. She might have some genuinely awful things to have to do that require her to spend most of the film looking like she’s on the verge of tears but she manages to sell you on her interpretation of this icon. You can see that she’s clearly doing everything she can to make this work, putting her all into every scene and going at it with gusto and seemingly no fear and you have to marvel that she puts so much into a film that gives her so little to work with.
On a technical level, if you were to judge a film purely based on performance quality and visual aesthetic, Blonde would probably get high marks but the actual content makes it feel horrific to watch. You feel like an accomplice to a crime watching this, like you took part in something brutal that was done to a person who can’t stand up for themselves anymore. Blonde might have wanted to honour Marilyn, but all it did was take her image for one last joyride without a single care in the world and it’s just depressing. Even in death, Marilyn Monroe once again has her image exploited and this time, she doesn’t even get a check for the trouble.