amoslamb’s review published on Letterboxd:
Blonde was always going to be a challenging film, it’s easy to understand why because the central concept of the film (and Oates’s book) works off of a fictional history of a woman who in real life was reduced to an image years ago. A woman whose identity was stripped from her by the public perception. This idea can be seen most famously in Andy Warhol’s prints of Marilyn, the idea that her image is a commodity to be reprinted and rebranded in the same way a tin of soup can be. The difference in Warhol’s art and Oates’s book is how they use Monroe’s image, Warhol takes a much more sympathetic approach to Monroe’s commodification, whereas Oates used it as a jumping off point to explore the patriarchy and abuse of woman by weaving a fictional narrative that involves rape, abuse and abortion, which makes its ethical implication more complicated than Warhol’s prints even if they share a conceptual DNA.
This concept, while brilliant in theory, raises very valid criticism alongside it’s praise due to the real-life Marilyn that gets caught in the crossfire of this concept. I’m not going to argue whether it is “right” because frankly I think both sides of the argument raise valid points and it’s ultimately going to come down to the individual whether it works for them or not.
I think the film does a lot of interesting things to explore the idea of Marilyn as a persona and devoid of agency. I do believe the film is sympathetic to Norma Jeane as a woman who takes on this role initially to fill the hole left from her childhood but that becomes its own being that overwhelmes Norma. The way we see her agency taken away from her in the physical sense (the rape scene, the forced abortion, etc.) but also in subtler ways like when she tells her assistants that she’s a “slave to Marilyn Monroe” and they tell her that she doesn’t mean it or when Joe DiMaggio character proposes with language that removes Norma’s input “we love each other, it’s time we get married” (purposefully phrased to remove Norma’s input into the equation). Admittedly these concepts only work due to the meta-narrative of “necessarily” (in quotations because again there’s a larger debate about whether it was necessary to focus around Monroe rather than a fictional stand-in) exploiting Marilyn in creating this story, which seems to be the central crux of the criticism against the film (and again I want to state that while I do like the film I recognise that there are very valid criticisms stemming from this crux).
But like with all good historical fiction, Blonde is a reflection of modernity. The issues tackled through Marilyn Monroe are all so relevant for 2022. Think about how in a post-MeToo world the rape scene plays, how in a post-Roe V Wade world the forced abortion scene plays out, the stories of domestic abuse by celebrities reflecting the abuse we see Norma suffer. Andrew Dominick is aware of the status of Monroe’s image in our society and utilises that to reflect on these ever present issues bred out of a misogynistic and patriarchal society. The Seven Year Itch sequence I thought was especially powerful in examining how men sexualise women only to slut-shame and berate them for being sexual.
One of the most powerful motifs that runs throughout the film I thought was how Norma is constantly viewing her life as a film. Herself as a character, even in the happy moments like when she finds her tiger toy after learning of her first pregnancy. It’s so powerful in its simplicity to show how reclusive Norma has made herself become in her own mind, viewing her life as a performance because her life as Marilyn is a performance in of itself.
There’s also a very interesting parallel between female fame and male fame. The way in which fame affects the male characters (Kennedy, Mailer, DiMaggio, Chaplin) while containing their downsides are all shown to be devoid of the issues facing Norma’s fame and what she suffers because of it by the very fact that she is a woman rather than a man.
While I completely understand this film involves very complicated ideological complications due to it’s historical fiction concept, for me it really worked and I’d be lying if I didnt say I found it a powerful exploration of trauma and abuse and how the patriarchal systems harm the women under it.