Mark D Cassar
November 2, 2022

Blonde: An Odyssey in Exaggeration

This is NOT a biopic about an American idol called Marilyn Monroe. Rather a study of the psychological damage that fame can do to a person like Norma Jeane who was ill-equipped to deal with it. It’s a cautionary fictitious tale, that the writer, director, and producer Andrew Dominick warns, “This will offend everyone.” You’re not wrong mate.

Blonde received a 15-minute ovation at the Venice Biennial but has been absolutely savaged by critics. “Necrophiliac entertainment”, The New York Times. “All Pain, No Pleasure”, Rolling Stone. “Aestheticized Brutality”, Slate Magazine.

The film’s based on the bestselling book ‘Blonde: A Novel’ by Joyce Carol Oates. The clue is in the title, it is not a “mealy-mouthed disclaimer” as The New York Times claimed. The author said, “The film was a brilliant work of cinematic art… obviously not for everyone”.

These people with their high and mighty indignation have arrived at the gates of morality, pitchforks in hand. With deep-seated misplaced loyalty to an Institution of the American celebrity known as Marilyn Monroe. I guess one must feel an effrontery to protect her from all these shenanigans or at least defend the image. Call it “white knight syndrome” or the compulsion to rescue which seems a big part of what this film is about has been ignored. Ironically this is what these critics are trying to do.

In the night sky embers of ash float like ethereal snow above the burning hills of tinsel town in the 1933 California wildfires is where this story really begins. From the bruised and battered brain of little Norma’s Mommie comes the inherent wish to be a good mother. Where a benevolent father looks down on her from up high not unlike God. Even if he is a dead ringer for Clark Gable, it’s just a moustache in a frame, a disguise in love. A necessary setup for the little girl lost syndrome with a “daddy” fixation.

Ana de Armas embodies the character of Monroe with remnants of her native Cuban accent which strangely manages to enhance her heartbreakingly realistic performance. This may be an odyssey in exaggeration of her profound sorrow by making her a saint on the altar of the movie’s gratification or is it that she’s just a “slut” for men to do her wrong?

Her personae are split in two to illustrate the conundrum of the Madonna/whore. “At least you know who you are?” Purrs the perfectly decked out Norma Jeane in one of the many germane outfits costume designer Jennifer Johnson replicated. Those handsome devils she knows will romantically recite how Marilyn will be a huge star and even show her a huge billboard of herself along the sunset strip, a giant amongst little men.

Impregnated by Cass, one of her Gemini twin lovers, Norma Jeane’s terror of having mommie dearest genes is enough to convince her to seek help from the studio, who arrange to have an illegal abortion. Granted, the ugly truth of mental illness dressed up as the iconic Marilyn is going to make some people repel. Using the ludicrous excuse that Hollywood eats its own or lamenting how can you possibly enjoy another Monroe picture? as The New Yorker asks, it is obstinately refusing to understand the film at all.

If you think you’re going to be watching a biopic you will be irately disappointed and miss what is a rarity. A brave attempt at full frontal naked brutal honesty in filmmaking. Dominick is a highly intelligent, aesthetically pleasing craftsman.

The blurred lines of fantasy and reality come clearly into focus if you’re willing to look, via the beautifully book-ended shots. ‘The Seven Year Itch’ fantasy shot ending with the reality of Norma’s suicide. It is for some going to be heavy going to admit to oneself that the ideal of Monroe has nothing to do with the self-destructive woman who didn’t want to be rescued.

Blonde feels like it was directed with Terence Malik’s eye. The cinematography of Chayse Irvin is poetic in its capturing of the pop culture references bringing a whole catalogue of iconic photographic images to life. The evocative ambient accompaniment that is perfection rising with the fears and tears of Marilyn’s shattered life, is provided by the reliable team of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

The deeply unsettling abortion scenes are not easy to watch. This is a fine line: the idea of male gaze turned on its head it may be an honest look at Hollywood’s seedy misogynistic underbelly. Whether Blonde ends up the right side of the feminist line, only you the viewer can judge.

Criticised for being without humour this is a psychological melodrama not a comedy. Mental illness isn’t really a funny subject and the Marilyn we have come to know is not the lady with the comic timing, but the actress who wanted to be taken seriously. Heavens to Betsy no, not that fragile child who needed a guiding hand please take her away and replace her with the cute bit of cheesecake with the megawatt smile beaming with confidence. Or as one character says, “Look at the ass on that little girl.” It’s an uncomfortable situation to realise that perhaps the sexist in the room may be yourself.

This highly stylized portrayal of a fictional Marilyn Monroe is as fake as it gets just like the name. Norma Jeane has another more chilling melancholic tale with every spin downward into its oblivion. With every pill popped to her inevitable demise until the tragic end. Blonde is an apt title because it is not a person, it’s a product you pay for because it’s not real. It’s a fantasy, a manufactured male fantasy.

The film is less concerned about the process of packaging a Hollywood star than how disposable the Hollywood person behind that star is. The built-in obsolescence of the American dream that so rapidly becomes an American horror story, only to end up as an American tragedy.

Mark D Cassar

Mark D.Cassar was a freelance film and video editor in New York, having worked for HBO and Warner Bros Pictures. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.