Blonde ★★

I tried not to read any of the reviews for this movie, but just being online I caught the general vibe of it...and it was not a great vibe. Again, I tried not to catch any of the specific criticisms of the film, because I did want to see it. I love Ana De Armas, I think she's sexy and charming and a wonderful performer. In theory I like Andrew Dominik. I enjoyed "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" even though the length of the title is pretentious and I felt it was too long and had some sluggish sections and I've intended to watch "Killing them Softly" ever since it came out (I've probably owned the blu-ray for almost a decade). In addition to those attributes, it's a movie for grown-ups and I am starved for those most of the time (even though they make more of them than I or anyone else tends to acknowledge, I've succumbed to the viewpoint that we're living through a drought of intelligent movies made for adults when, honestly, a new one premieres on Netflix or Prime or Hulu every couple of weeks and prompts the same laments about how such movies aren't made anymore). The early word that this was an NC-17 film filled with sex and adult themes, and that feels like a unicorn these days.

So I didn't want to approach this movie from a negative perspective. I wanted to champion it against those who've been bitching about it. But, sadly, it's kind of rotten.

It starts well, introducing us to Norma Jeane Baker as a child via an engaging atmosphere and some compelling stylistic and aesthetic flourishes. Her mother is crazy and abusive. She doesn't know who her father is, she only sees a picture that her mother claims is of her father. Then we cut to Norma Jeane after she's become Marilyn Monroe. We see her get violated by a movie producer known only by an initial ("Z" which I'm assuming stands for Zanuck) and then she gets swept up in a whirlwind of stardom.

My wife pointed out that Monroe, as portrayed here, is essentially being sex trafficked for her entire career. Despite the fame and fortune, her life is one traumatic, lust-fueled encounter after another. I appreciate Dominik trying to acknowledge how the lust of men makes life miserable for women and the special hell that awaits really attractive women (I once heard an anecdote about how Marilyn was so desirable to men that one of them, upon simply seeing her at a bookstore, took out his dick and started masturbating in full public view...but I cannot remember where I heard this anecdote so I might have dreamed it) because men are brutal, possessive apes who sometimes use their dicks as weapons. Dominik uses Marilyn's story as a way of examining the brutal lust of Men which has been destroying the world since its beginning.

But taking Marilyn's life and reducing it to that theme seems, well, reductive. Also reductive is the way that Dominik (and Joyce Carol Oates, whose novel I have not and probably will never read) boils Marilyn's entire psychology down to "she didn't know her dad and it fucked her up". Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't, but it seems like a pretty shallow way of summing up an iconic woman's entire life and the choices she made (or that were made for her, I guess, according to this movie). We never get to know Marilyn as a person, just an avatar for the awfulness of Men to respond to. Ana De Armas does her best to give Marilyn Monroe a soul, and she gives a brave performance that almost transcends caricature. It's not her fault that it never quite surpasses a "dumb blonde" stereotype, I feel like that was all she was given to work with by the writer and director.

A long movie, which this one certainly is (it's two hours and forty-five minutes) allows a storyteller the ability to delve deeper into its subject, to draw us into a character and get to know them in a way that a shorter film does not, and to explore a multitude of themes in a way that a shorter film simply doesn't have the time to do. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of filmmakers have forgotten that this is the luxury that an "epic" film affords ("Lawrence of Arabia" is a magnificent example of how deeply a longer film can get under its main character's skin) and simply make indulgent films that hit the same notes over and over again without going any deeper. It was a problem with Luhrmann's "Elvis" and it's an even bigger problem here. On a basic storytelling frame, "Blonde" fails by skipping right over how Marilyn was discovered or why she wanted to become an actress in the first place (Daddy Issues, I guess, according to Oates and Dominik, or maybe just because that's what emotionally damaged ladies do in their eyes). And despite some token references to Chekhov and Dostoyevsky that Monroe makes throughout the movie, Dominik's portrayal of her still boils down to "dumb blonde", a vicious and unfair dismissal that has always hung over Monroe's acting work.

The movie also plays fast and loose with the facts of Monroe's life (apparently she wasn't actually part of a "throuple" with Charlie Chaplin's son and Edward G. Robinson Jr.) in a way that is pretty shameful, to be honest. Also shameful is Dominik's use of cinematic devices here, such as the already infamous "vagina POV" shot or his constant and kind of irritating fluctuation between color and B&W. I never got the feeling that these tricks were being employed for a thematic purpose, just being used because Dominik thought they were "cool" and using "cool" camera angles and film techniques in telling the story of a woman's exploitation and degradation feels kind of irresponsible in my opinion. "Blonde" is a gorgeous looking movie, but a movie about a woman's exploitation shouldn't feel quite so, well, exploitative. It's a shallow, reductive portrayal of one of cinema's greatest icons that cheapens and deflates her. It made me despise most of its male characters (the guys she had her fictitious "throuple" with were nice, and I liked those scenes well enough, and I cherished the sweet interlude with Adrien Brody playing Arthur Miller because he was one of the few men who treated her decently...though by then, according to this film, a lifetime of trauma had damaged her too irreparably that she was able to flourish in such a relationship). Hell, "Blonde" makes its men into such monsters that it was the one and only time that I've ever felt like JFK ultimately got what he deserved.

But if a storyteller is telling a real person's story, I feel like they have an obligation to honor that person and not exploit them for their own thematic agenda, no matter how important such an agenda might be. I mean, Men really are awful and they've made women's lives hellish forever...but maybe Dominik could have gotten that point across while still showing us what made Marilyn tick and how she became an enduring icon in the first place. I have a feeling that there was more to her than being so hot that men just became beasts around her.

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