The Strawberry Criterion: Blonde

In the climactic scene of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Andrew Dominik’s since-canonized arthouse western, a potent collection of American iconography is simultaneously laid to rest and reanimated: a renegade cowboy, played by a handsome movie star, dies at the hands of his most adoring fan. The scene is quiet and deliberate for its genre, understated in the extreme in its retelling of a mythic moment in US history. Just before he is shot, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) steps onto a chair to adjust a framed painting of a horse, confronting that most unadorned symbol of the lawless, untamed West. He has been brought face-to-face, after countless instances of deceit and theft and criminality, with the alluring image from which so much of his violence–and his fledgling country’s violence–has originated, but the inevitable consequences of living out that savage fantasy have arrived. The bullet that hits the back of James’s head throws his skull forward and smashes it into the picture frame, shattering the glass. His killer, Robert Ford, absconds from the scene, set to package and sell the story that will make him infamous and, in short time, consume and destroy him. Seductive fantasies, brutal realities–this tension is at the core not just of The Assassination… but of the American sociopolitical experiment thus far. It is also, as Dominik’s latest film, Blonde, ruthlessly makes apparent, the foundation on which Hollywood was built. Then as now, the foundation is rotten.

Based on the 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is an impressionistic, heavily fictionalized account of the rise and fall of the actress Norma Jeane Mortenson, who is best known for performing under the stage name of Marilyn Monroe. “To live is to suffer,” an optimistic German philosopher once wrote, and from the first gorgeous, sumptuous frames of Blonde, Dominik is hellbent on ensuring that Norma Jeane is vividly, achingly alive with suffering. We meet her as a young girl living at the mercy of her domineering, unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson), a woman whose institutionalization will turn Norma Jeane into an orphan failed perpetually by the systems meant to house and protect and support her: foster care, Hollywood, marriage, wealth. Perhaps in an homage to (frankly one of the clunkier) elements of The Assassination…, much of Blonde‘s dramatic and psychological action relates back to a single framed image, a purported picture of the absent father that Norma Jeane will never meet. This portrait is the main driver of Blonde‘s minimal plot and maximalist cinematography, the form and narrative coming together, over a nearly three-hour runtime, to bore and baffle more often than they astound. Even the most glorious visuals, it turns out, cannot salvage such a straightforward adaptation of the Wikipedia page for the Father Complex. Marilyn, in a choice approaching parody, refers to all her husbands by the pet name “Daddy.”

If there is complexity or artistic value to be found in Blonde, it resides in Dominik’s visual style, which manipulates color and aspect ratio and perspective to evoke the era and glamour still reflexively associated with Monroe and her films. The visuals, even when they depict something repulsive or indulgent, are genuinely dazzling, so much so that the viewer can’t help but feel that Netflix has done a similar disservice to Blonde that Old Hollywood did to its protagonist: this deeply flawed film, like Marilyn Monroe, deserved better advocates (and a wider theater release). A defense of Blonde might cite this meta-critique of the entertainment industry as intentional on Dominik’s part, another juxtaposition reinforcing how the intoxicating splendor of his on-screen images contrasts the abominable, exploitative treatment endured by Marilyn behind the scenes, but the sheer monotony of the tone and messaging makes these defenses tough to sustain. The one-note quality likewise hampers the potentially stellar lead performance by Ana de Armas, who, following Dominik’s too-narrow direction, commendably embodies Monroe’s look without once being granted full access to her spirit, humor, or interior life. For de Armas, this dynamic eschews any need for creative license on her part, as the powerful man meant to elevate her acting, in the grand Hollywood tradition, had fated her to fail long before she was cast.

This isn’t to say that Blonde is absent a sense of humor, as many of its sequences present as hilariously heavy-handed or, in certain instances, so politically retrograde as to invite a kind of frightened laughter. The endurance cinema of Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier are miscast influences here, and the two graphic abortion sequences, partially shot from the inside of Marilyn’s vagina, could have been directed (with far more aplomb) by Gasper Noe. Dominik deploys these influences haphazardly, applying them like an overconfident film major who has both misunderstood the readings and ignored the assignment. Those cited directors leverage disturbing images and discomfort as a means to illuminate the subtler violences and deeper anxieties that undergird contemporary European society, sparking difficult conversations about the continent’s history, identity, and decay. Blonde is, in contrast, more of a one-sided monologue, or a dull lecture that renders its compelling topic irrelevant. The most intriguing interpretative questions it raises stand outside the film itself, and primarily concern the psychological hangups that, first, attracted Joyce Carol Oates to the figure of Marilyn Monroe, and, second, drew Andrew Dominik to Oates’s particular rendering of beauty, fame, parentage, and artistic legacy.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Oates defended Dominik’s film by stating that the “real things that happened to Marilyn Monroe are much worse than anything in the movie.” By framing of the 50s sex symbol as a kind of ritual sacrifice, a pig brought to slaughter as bread and circus for the ascendant American empire, Blonde draws clear parallels to another (superior) big-screen fictionalization of midcentury superstardom, Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS. Luhrmann’s film is showy and overstuffed in another manner, a fireworks spectacular as opposed to an art exhibit, yet the most consequential difference between the films lies not in the kindness or generosity that their directors show their subjects, but in the perfectly divergent levels of artistic regard that Dominik and Luhrmann have for Monroe, Elvis, and perhaps most importantly, their creative outputs. ELVIS indicts audiences for the indirect role they played in Elvis Presley’s death, its final scenes punishing the viewer by forcing them to confront the fragile, irreplaceable person and talent that was lost too soon. Blonde may want to indict misogyny, toxic fandom, Hollywood, or all of the above, but in practice, it only punishes Marilyn. The viewer is left too disinterested to feel implicated.

To complete that earlier quote from the German philosopher, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” In Blonde, Marilyn Monroe is denied a childhood, physically and verbally abused by her husbands, belittled, raped, and driven to take a fatal overdose. She dies friendless and childless and alone, at thirty-six years of age. That the stewards of her story believe that these hardships were only a fraction of her true pain says more about their own reductive, pessimistic worldviews than it does about Norma Jeane Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe, or the culture that remains fascinated with her character, her movies, and her poetry. Blonde is too much suffering, too little meaning. The next time that the brave, uncompromising artists behind it want to make a movie or write a novel, they should just save us all the trouble and call their daddies.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 2.75 Strawberries out of 5