/ 30 November 2022

One Film Two Takes: Blonde

Blonde Actress Ana De Armas Credits Netflix
Extreme: Anna de Armas plays Marylin Monroe in ‘Blonde’. Photo: Netflix

Blonde is not an easy watch. Before the film starts, audiences should be shown some form of warning that the film depicts raw and cruel scenes of substance abuse, sexual violence, mental illness, suicide and abortion. 

Blonde’s 2022 retelling of Marilyn Monroe’s story is Netflix’s take on the life of Hollywood’s most famous and misunderstood actress. The lore of Monroe is full of glitz and glam, but Blonde is one of the most unpleasant films to have hit streaming screens in recent years.

Monroe, (played by Ana de Armas) was born Norma Jean Mortenson to a mentally ill mother and grew up an orphan in the United States’ fostering system. De Armas’s depiction of Monroe clearly aims to explore the difference between Norma Jean and Marilyn Monroe, whose life-long pursuit of love under Hollywood’s watchful eye stems from her turbulent childhood.

Blonde opens with young Norma Jean (played by Lily Fisher), being abused by her biological mother (Julianne Nicholson). This most likely attempts to foreshadow the mental health struggles Monroe experiences in her adult life by drawing comparisons to her mother. Although it has been proven that Monroe’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the film’s depiction of an abusive mother is fiction.

Blonde doesn’t tell anything new about the story of Monroe that previous films haven’t portrayed already. It is based on the 2000 fiction novel by Joyce Carol Oates.

The only difference between Blonde and previous Monroe films is the amount of sex shown, both consensual and non-consensual. One questions why the director, Andrew Dominik, felt the need to continuously insert scenes where female characters are victims of sexual violence.

Blonde’s fictionalised narrative of the life of a real person will probably leave incorrect assumptions in the minds of its viewers. The film implies that Monroe got her big break in Hollywood because of a big-shot director, who (in the film) sexually assaults her during an audition.

Dominik uses a traumatic abortion scene to push a pro-life agenda using a wacky CGI foetus for pure shock factor. He ignores the fact that Monroe wasn’t far enough into this pregnancy for an actual foetus to form. The abortion scene is unnecessarily graphic.

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that this abortion ever happened to Monroe.

He also portrays her as a girl with so-called Daddy issues.

Blonde touches on Monroe’s affair with President John F Kennedy, but the relationship is not explored thoroughly, giving Dominik space to suggest that Monroe was a victim of abuse at the hands of Kennedy. 

His telling of Monroe objectifies and dehumanises her. — Kimberley Schoeman 

Directors and writers tend to rely on creative licence when putting a biopic together. It makes sense: real life events can be inherently cinematic but we can push creative boundaries. In the case of Netflix’s Blonde, Andrew Dominik assumes both roles and creative licence cards. The question is, why?

The film explores the life of Norma Jean and her becoming Marilyn Monroe. From the opening scene, we meet her as a child living with a single mother who suffers from mental illness. The mother’s attempt to drown her daughter leads to her admission into a psychiatric ward and Norma Jean’s relocation to an orphanage.

It’s here that Norma Jean discovers her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe. 

Because it can be difficult to discern where Norma begins and Marilyn ends, the film show Norma’s scenes in full colour and Marilyn’s in film noir.

The cinematography is some of the film’s strongest offerings. The majority of the picture is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio, showing just how suffocating all the men in Monroe’s life were. 

There are even scenes where things start off in 16:9 and shrink to oblivion, for example when she gets in an argument with her first husband Joe DiMaggio.

We need to return to the question why. Why do we see Monroe being violently raped by a booking agent when there is no substantiated evidence supporting this? Why does she suffer two forced abortions when an autopsy confirmed she never aborted a child? Why is she scooped up and thrown into JFK’s bedroom while his wife sobs outside, then forced to perform fellatio before being drugged and raped? 

Timelines are warped in Blonde such as Monroe’s last photo shoot. The iconic images of Norma on the beach in nothing but a sweater were taken mere weeks before her untimely death, but the scene is recreated as part of honeymoon bliss with second husband, Arthur Miller. 

The question simply is this: if you’re going to fictionalise a true story, should you lean deeply into dialling up the violence or do you have an opportunity to give the protagonist some agency?

There are a few moments where we’re gently reminded that Monroe was smart. She compares a character in Miller’s play to one in Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters. She pushes back after finding out her co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes stands to earn 1 900% more than she will. 

But could Monroe have been given more agency? Shown to be stronger than her view through the male gaze?

The plight of women at the hands of Hollywood’s white male elite — and in general — is something we should never stop talking about. — Rifumo Mdaka