There is an uncharacteristically well-judged moment about two thirds of the way into Blonde. Ana de Armas' Norma Jeane is speaking to Adrien Brody's Arthur Miller about the characterisation of the central figure in one of his playscripts. She perceptively comments about how the woman in the play is not given range by the male playwright, is presented as merely good, with no arc or variation. This devalues her, reduces her and limits the play.

To begin with, Miller responds negatively to this assessment. He questions who gave her this interpretation, reflecting the very same narrow view of feminine expression that his script is supposed to display. Eventually, the scene, like every scene in this film, finds a way to undercut itself. This is not a moment to build Jeane's character, and to show her as more than she was always made out to be; this is not a moment to showcase the narrow perceptions of those around her. This instead becomes a meet-cute for Miller and Jeane's relationship, as he only focuses on Jeane pointing out the character (based on somebody from Miller's past) was probably illiterate. Therefore, the conclusion of this scene is Miller having a moment of clarity, gaining something. There is nothing for Norma Jeane here.

The irony of the scene is that the very critique Jeane makes is the core issue with Blonde. In this film, there is just a shallow obsession with Marilyn Monroe (yes, Marilyn Monroe, not Norma Jeane) as a composite character: a thin allegory for the targets of male abuse. Not even really patriarchal abuse, because the thinness of the portrayal of every element here doesn't allow the film to speak systemically, and its clear distance from discernible reality also keeps it away from any legitimate commentary. Monroe is a tool in this film. She exists as an excuse for a range of abusive imagery and to show toxicity.

At this point, it is worth engaging with the films I have seen Blonde most frequently compared to, and how those films actually perfectly illustrate the clear limitations of Dominik's picture. On one hand, we have Fire Walk with Me. Lynch's now widely understood masterpiece is evidently an inspiration on Blonde. Hell, a piece of music right near the end (a piece of music that is paired with Monroe just before her death) is so close to Palmer's Theme from Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks score that it is ridiculous. The tempo, the instrumentation, the key: it's all there. All it is lacking is the piano melody on top, but the melody we do have certainly flirts with it. I even pulled my phone out and played the song on Spotify over the film. It lined up far too closely.

But I digress. Fire Walk with Me is a film about very dark abuse, about how female beauty is commodified, about the cruelty of masculinity and about the effects of sustained abuse on its victims. It is not a film that victimises, though. The key balance here is a thing Blonde fumbles so totally. There is such a difference between somebody being made to be reliant, forced into a lack of autonomy, and somebody whose lack of autonomy leads them to being abused. In Fire Walk with Me, Laura is a complex character whose agency is taken away from her and it is about her reactions to this. In Blonde, Marilyn is infantilised through her presentation, a damsel waiting for distress as a foil to the horrors done to her. This is cheapening and reductive, and fundamentally doesn't work because of the film's prevalent unreality.

This is a fictional take on Norma Jeane's life, pointlessly so. Yes, it's based on a book, but the central conceit is still strange. It is made more strange by the fiction only ever feeling fictional. If it wants to be an impressionistic story of Jeane's pain, it completely fails. It never gives her a discernible sense of humanity of shows any cognisance of her as a person that did things, only as a person to whom things are done. Fire Walk with Me's Laura Palmer is a human that dies, a human that did things and her construction gives the film weight. Monroe is akin to a leading lady from a Lars Von Trier film: a sacrificial vision of femininity that exists to be the object of pain.

The film's relationship with reality brings us to the other clear comparison point: Spencer. My wife pointed out that Larrain's Jackie is another touchstone and went on to make the further point that this (now) trend of these impressionistic takes of female figures is starting to look a touch crass (though Jackie and Spencer are wonderful film, it seems the women become the playthings of directors for their artistic aims, while men often get stately biopics; though, Luhrman's Elvis perhaps belongs in this conversation). It is, perhaps, another example of men moulding women as what they want, with the safety net of 'it is surreal' to fall back onto. Something very much worth thinking about.

However, Spencer uses its evident unreality so much more effectively. It directly signals it from the start (with opening text) but primarily works because the film actually engages with the interiority of the character. We all live subjectively; therefore, the fantastical can be a smart way to map out the actual truth of our internal lives. Blonde does not have a grasp of the internal life of its subject, it is too arch and too busy trying to be artsy to ever get close. Spencer also benefits from a tight construction, from clear plotting and from a reduced focus. Blonde is a sprawling mess of a film; it is often a very beautiful work, but its beauty is in service of very little. We change aspect ratios, move between (stunning) black and white and colour, and have all kinds of inventive filmic tricks. But it all feels hollow. Much like how the film can't actually engage with the reality under the beautiful surface of Monroe, this surface it very much is interested in presenting, the film can't offer any substance beyond its own beautiful facade.

This beauty is often far too close to the macabre, also. Presentations of abuse are often uncomfortable (the presentation, not just what is presented) and a wide range of scenes are actively disgusting. A central part of the film is Monroe's relationship with potential motherhood. The way this is handled is appalling, it falls into gender essentialist perspectives about what it means to be a woman and the actual presentation of foetuses throughout feels like parody. I don't want to get into specifics because some of it is really upsetting; just know that it is awful, like so much of the film.

For a while, I was convinced that Blonde was 'not good' but 'not awful'. But then it just keeps going. Its lack of discipline and structure becomes more apparent and, really, Elton John managed to do more in under four minutes, with more sensitivity, regarding capturing the tragedy and humanity of Norma Jeane than Dominik ever gets close to in almost three hours. Everything that isn't flimsy or empty in this film is grotesque, grotesque for reasons it doesn't understand. Blonde is yet another masculine domination of Norma Jeane's story. Framing her life through the lens of obsession with a father figure, in a film where the male filmmaker is so keen to position himself as architect and auteur... It is creepy. Norma Jeane is plaything again; she is used to present beauty and her tragedy is reduced to spectacle and controversy.

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