The director’s accomplishment: further objectification of the already objectified
By Ella Stillion Southard / Matthew staff || Edited by Marouso Pappa
Upon watching the latest biopic of Marily Monroe, Blonde (2022), I am reminded that it takes a misguided director to remind an audience of the power of film direction. Sometimes it’s difficult to decipher the hand of the director(s) from the work of the actor. Certainly, when an audience watches the work of widely well-known performance powerhouses like Joaquin Phoenix and Meryl Streep, it’s apparent when the actor wields their autonomy, or more oftentimes than not, when the director and actors fuse together in beautiful cinematic harmony. But when the audience is invited by the soft hand of new-comer Ana de Armas, in the embodiment of possibly the most famous female performer in the 20th century, the apprehensive inquiry only increases, and one can only hope that experienced director Andrew Dominik will delicately lure Marilyn out of Armas. Instead, however, we witness the nearly three-hour jerking around of Marilyn’s body, for the sake of touting around the title of uncovering the woman behind the woman, the Norma Jean behind the Marilyn, when in fact what Dominik really accomplishes, is the further objectification of the already objectified.
Although there are serious criticisms to be made about the choices Dominik makes, there is nothing productive about an analysis concerning itself only with the perceived negative outcomes of the film. There are some elements of the film that worked, namely Ana de Armas. Indeed, Dominik maintains an unrelenting grasp on Monroe’s experiences and responses to her own “life,” but Ana de Armas gives a compelling performance. It not only bears the weight of the difficult assignment of Monroe, but also successfully meets the demand of a non-stop emotional project, for Dominik is not interested in designing a breath that does not heave of trauma. Armas contributes as much nuance as she can to the bounds of Dominik’s plot; even without watching a second of an off-screen interview with Armas, who has affirmed her immersion into Monroe’s psyche, Armas’ performance alone conveys her deep empathetic understanding of Monroe’s suffering. Furthermore, Armas does provide recognition of a whole woman for brief moments when the script allows, like when she’s in conversation with playwright Arthur Miller, her director, and future husband, giving insight into his play’s characters that he hadn’t thought of. Nevertheless, this interaction still frames Marilyn’s characterization in relation to a man, who the audience most likely knows will become her husband. Nowhere in the film is a moment where her life experiences are not based on what she lacks, a father, a healthy and sane mother, or what a man is conducting or influencing her to do. The moments to herself are consumed with suffering, a reflection always on what is wronging her, herself included.
Hence, Dominik bolsters a fantasy of unequivocal male domination, one that, despite appearing to be devoted to a factual recalling of an abusive 1950s Hollywood with unchecked sexual assault and abuse, denies an opportunity to return any of Marilyn’s, or Norma Jean’s, autonomy decades after her death. While it’s imperative to confront the history and reality of abuse so the cycle can be broken, Marilyn Monroe was more than a victim of unruly men and their construction of her as a sexpot; she was a brilliant actor, who was not only significantly informed on the roles she played, but founded her own production company, and owned her sexual freedom without shame.
One may rebut that Blonde is based on the fictional book of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, which details similar scenes that Dominik depicts. So surely all the blame must not rest on him, right? Because it’s not completely original material? To that, I remind the objector that Dominik wields the power of the visual medium, which he does indeed control skillfully. Admittedly, the film toys with several different optical techniques to transcribe Norma Jean’s psychological breakdown to the audience, and when paired with Armas’ powerful depiction of Monroe’s experience, it creates some compelling moments. Dominik and his cinematographer Chayse Irvin utilize four aspect ratios throughout the film and switch between black and white and color shading, which provides some dynamic intrigue alongside the already established iconic scenes the film recreates.
Furthermore, the cinematography certainly bolsters Dominik’s desire to blur reality and the subjective confines of Marilyn’s mind; sometimes the camera points to Marilyn as if she were holding it herself, and other times we enter her body and experience her painful, uncomprehensive haze first-hand. However, whatever merit is achieved in the moments of spectacle wonder, are significantly weighed down by Dominik’s choice to completely submerge the viewer into Marilyn’s uterus when she has two forced abortions and miscarriages. Not only do we observe the through-line motif of Marilyn’s story being constructed on what she lost (a chance to love a baby and how she wished to be loved by her mother), but the viewers also witness Dominik push the boundary on what can be considered his interpretation versus fiction. According to many critics, or anyone that does a quick Google search, Marilyn did not in fact have a forced abortion to anyone’s knowledge, compelling film critics and Planned Parenthood, an organization committed to providing resources on reproductive rights, to label Blonde as an “anti-abortion campaign” that completely removes reproductive choice as a possibility from Marilyn’s context, and by extension many women’s situations.
Everything this film does well, for it does have its notable moments of magnetism, are overshadowed by Dominik’s narrow understanding of Monroe, and what this film could’ve been: a celebration of a resilient woman, though beaten down by her extensive childhood trauma and the metal fist of the Golden Age of Hollywood, we in the 21st century get to award her the removal of the modern male gaze, as atonement for the destruction the industry and the masculine spectator’s eye caused for her. Dominik did not seize this opportunity for that, however, for as he stated in his quite controversial interview with British Film Institute’s Christiana Newland, “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images.” As the interview proceeds to reveal, Dominik doesn’t know Marilyn better than those that objectify her – for she is just a muse for his camera, a spectacle of self-destructive entertainment as an excuse for the title of empowerment.
If you’re considering watching Blonde, I leave you with a comment from the director during the BFI interview: “If you look at the Instagram version of her life, she’s got it all. And she killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing. It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength. OK, she wrested control away from the men at the studio, because, you know, women are just as powerful as men. But that’s really looking at it through a lens that’s not so interesting to me.”
If this is what Dominik believes, then it’s perhaps the audience who should be uninterested in entertaining Dominik’s voyeuristic lens.