❉ Nick Clement gives his verdict on this year’s most provocative and challenging motion picture.
Andrew Dominik’s polarizing new film, Blonde, has been the target of many vitriol-filled critiques over the last couple of weeks. You will not find one here – this is the most daring artistic achievement of the year in cinema so far that I’ve seen – the pressure is now on all other filmmakers to surpass this level of brilliance. But what’s been so interesting to note is that those who seemingly disdain the work are placing hate on the film for not being what they feel it might have been, or should have been, instead of taking a thoughtful examination of what’s been presented for the audience. It’s always easier to dismiss art in this fashion, and of course, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, and nobody is correct or incorrect when it comes to how a particular film makes them feel after viewing it. This is not an old-fashioned biopic, and if you know anything about Dominik’s previous efforts (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing them Softly, Chopper) you’d know that being traditional is not this guy’s raison d’etre. This is an impressionistic snapshot of a woman coming undone, literally unraveling at the seams as a result of many years of psychological trauma, and the film wears its erudite influences – Kubrick, Malick, and Lynch all come to mind – while carving out its own unique place in existence.
From where I sit, this film serves as a thoughtful, deeply feminist metaphor for something very large on a thematic level – in this case, the universal mistreatment of women, and most specifically, “beautiful women” in Hollywood. Sure, “beautiful” is a subjective term, but let’s not pretend that photogenic women haven’t been getting taken advantage of since day one. And Dominik knows this – which is why his male gaze is so important and so studied – his tough but supple imagery brings you into an almost hallucinatory head-space, for both the viewer personally, and also for Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe, who clearly wasn’t able to handle all of the pressures that came her way as a result of being placed on a pedestal by every single man that she came into contact with, as well as the millions she never met.
Dominik reminds us how the media and the movies helped to craft the idea of Marilyn Monroe, all the while showing how Norma Jeane was a separate entity. In many ways, Blonde feels like a logical extension to Jesse James, given that the dreamy narrative concentrates on celebrity worship and the importance that people place on controlling others. In this day and age, a film like Blonde feels perfectly timed to the zeitgeist, and yet, the message seems to be lost on many folks; this is a work that hates misogyny, while showing it in a very upfront and hurtful way.
Throughout the decades, the idea and image of Marilyn Monroe has been seen, by the vast majority of people, especially men, as a premium example of a Beautiful Female Actress, with many others to follow in her footsteps to be sure. But nobody has gripped the public’s attention and held their fascination for this many generations in the way she has and continues to do. And with Blonde, it’s all right there in the title. Dominik, who in concert with original author Joyce Carol Oates, has made a statement about the treatment of beautiful women who have been given their spot in the public limelight, and who have come to mean something to men – chiefly on a sexual level – and how they are viewed, evaluated, and devalued by strangers who can’t help but become enamoured by outward angelic features.
For me, the most startling scene of the year involves Norma Jeane/Monroe showing up for a movie premiere with her husband, Arthur Miller (the wonderfully generous actor, Adrien Brody), with hundreds of screaming fans and photographers begging for her attention. Shooting in high contrast black and white, Dominik heightens the moment with slow-motion, and digitally augments the male actor’s mouths, to make them appear ghoulish – everyone wants a piece of her – everyone feels that they have the right.
All throughout this provocative and challenging motion picture, Dominik’s camera studies his leading actress, Ana De Armas, with a lingering sense of longing, as if fully aware of her inherent allure, and her uncanny resemblance to the legendary actress. And yet there are times where we’re fully aware that this is a stunningly beautiful Cuban actress portraying America’s most famous Blonde, and the separation between the film world and the real world helps to further push this piece into a surreal area, which is not only matched by Dominik’s cerebral narrative, but by his absolutely stunning sense of craft and formal control, to say nothing of aural accompaniment. It’s a fearless, tour de force performance for Armas, who appears in virtually every scene, and who went all-in in every sense of the phrase.
The bold stylistic choices seen here are off the charts, and it further confirms the notion that Dominik is working on an entirely different level than most of his peers. The elliptical editing patterns from Adam Robinson keep this two hour and 40 minute film moving along at a steady pace, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ haunting score is in perfect tandem with the indelible, mixed-format imagery conjured up by eclectic cinematographer Chayse Irvin; few recent films feel this harmonious in all of the aesthetic departments in the way this one does.
Ultimately, and this certainly has upset many viewers, Blonde has been designed as a nightmare, with the viewer experiencing the worst aspects of Monroe’s life, but even then, the film isn’t just about the iconic actress – it’s about every single woman, blonde haired or not, who has been a victim of the casting couch, of an unscrupulous politician, or a jealous and abusive husband – it’s about how women have been and continue to be violated by a society that says it respects them, but still has a long way to go in many regards. There’s nothing happy or safe about this movie – it aims to scar, and as such, I’d imagine that someone like David Fincher would be in awe of it. The moment where Norma Jeane/Monroe is assaulted by JFK is startling in its hostility and lack of human qualities, and the stunning idea that Dominik had to show this moment as a movie-within-a-movie sequence, complete with paying audience, further demonstrates the lack of privacy that Norma Jeane (and many others) had to face when their personal sexual exploits were at stake – it’s a show for everyone to see because it involves someone famous, someone we think we know because we’ve created an idea of them in our own minds.
Given that Dominik has made only four features in 22 years, it’s become very clear that he’s only interested in making movies he feels extraordinarily passionate about, and the decade-long struggle he had while trying to get this film made ultimately allowed him the type of creative freedom he might not have gotten elsewhere; Netflix stepped up to pay the tab, while guiding light producer Brad Pitt never wavered from the material. It’s also interesting to note that Pitt has worked so closely with Dominik over the course of the filmmaker’s career and has given two of his best performances for the director; it’s almost as if he’s his Cinematic Godfather, literally making it possible to get his films made in the way he wants them to be made. Blonde has the sharp edges of Killing them Softly, the lush sense of pictorial beauty that marked Jesse James, and the same sense of distorted reality that made Chopper such an auspicious debut. And his latest just reconfirms that he’s one of the most interesting filmic storytellers currently living.
❉ ‘Blonde’ is available on Netflix.
❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.