A woman built from fiction – De Groene Amsterdammer

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in blonde

© Netflix

In May 1957 Marilyn Monroe became photographed by Richard Avedon. For four hours, the actress danced around his New York studio, singing songs and flirting with the camera. Later Avedon would put it this way: ‘She did Marilyn Monroe.” But when the evening was over, and the wine finished, the same Monroe sat in the corner of the room, staring blankly ahead, “like a child.” Avedon crept up to her with his camera and pressed. It was that photo, the portrait of a lost child, that would become world famous. The photo showed what would later become abundantly clear after her death in 1962: that there was something chafing between the laughter and the suffering, between the persona and the woman behind it.

blonde, Directed by Australian Andrew Dominik and produced for Netflix, it is not a true biopic of Monroe’s life, but an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalized 2000 biography, which blonde is called. What attracted him to Monroe, Dominik is asked interview after interview, and he always replies that he was not attracted by Monroe, but by that book. Oates’ blonde is ambitious, experimental and thick as a brick. It is a book full of bravado, just like Dominik’s film is. The story that Oates in blonde tells, is about a woman who only existed in the gaze of the other – a woman who was entirely made up of fiction and would perish under fiction. Dominik made an almost three-hour horror fairy tale about this woman. This is not the woman we know from the glamor photos, who seduces, flirts, plays and laughs, but the woman whose life was like a downward spiral, which started with neglect and ended with suicide, which revolved around men, daddy issues and an unfulfilled desire to have children. The lost child in the corner of the room staring blankly ahead.

Blonde opens in Hollywood, where Marilyn Monroe grows up as Norma Jeane Mortensen, in the 1920s and 1930s. Raging forest fires are the backdrop of a hellish childhood with a cruel, psychologically unstable mother. Her father is only present in her mother’s frustrated desire, who blames Norma Jeane for his departure. blonde works towards a gruesome climax, after which Norma Jeane is taken away from her mother. She ends up with the neighbors, and then in an orphanage. That’s how she is born: the child no one wanted, who would crave for a lifetime just to be seen. Almost twenty years of flushes blonde ahead in time. In the early 1950s, Norma Jeane has a new haircut, a new face and a new name: Marilyn Monroe. The child has turned into a persona. As she tries to shape her career, we see her searching for an identity. Everyone turns around as Marilyn Monroe walks by, but no one understands who she is. Nobody really wants to know.

In blonde the American Dream is a nightmare and that is how Dominik portrays his story: like a Lynchian fever dream. Here the emotional traumas are so great that they barely fit on your TV screen. Here good and bad stand against each other as black against white. Here we see how Monroe is betrayed and belittled, how success is always followed by disappointment. How she first marries a jealous and violent man, and then a contemptuous intellectual. Trauma piles on trauma, addiction piles on addiction. The problematic extends to the pathological. Dominik seeks the extreme in everything: in the technical ingenuity, the aesthetic boast, the crude urge to experiment. He flexes his muscles. From Monroe’s life he distills a world like a haunted house, a dark universe into which not even a ray of light manages to penetrate. Here he lets his protagonist wander – blind, helpless, lost.

The extreme stretches to the reactions that blonde calls. In reviews and on social media, the film is just as often slammed as it is praised, Dominik is alternately incensed and reviled. In her review of blonde in de Volkskrant Pauline Kleijer writes that Dominik is accused of having exploited Monroe ‘by showing her in all her vulnerability’. Rather than looking at a victim, Kleijer writes, Dominik’s critics would rather look at ‘a feminist heroine who radiates power, for example, or just something more cheerful’. And Coen van Zwol also writes, in the NRC, that female characters today must be ‘strong, active and formidable’ – ‘Marilyn Monroe as portrayed by Madonna’.

Andrew Dominik revels in Monroe’s suffering, stretches it as far as he can, loves it

This is not the Monroe that Dominik shows. Dominiks Monroe is not strong and active, but weak and passive. Dominiks Monroe is not a feminist heroine. But she’s also not the woman Norman Mailer once met ‘angel of sex’ mentioned: the cheerful sex bomb with the blowing dress. ‘I believe’, Dominik said to de Volkskrant, ‘that most of us (…) relate not so much to everyday reality as to stories. We make a story about ourselves: that’s what we experience.’ This is the Monroe Dominik wants us to see: the story she made of herself, a story bigger than life itself. But to show that story, he also has to show something of what was hidden behind it. He has to walk the line between the allegorical and the factual, between fiction and reality. So he meticulously copies the photos we know so well of Monroe and brings them to life, as if to say: This is the reality in which those photos were taken. But at the same time, he abstracts reality by magnifying or smoothing it out. Characters are reduced not only to their profession (Monroe’s exes are called the ‘Ex-Athlete’, the ‘Playwright’ or the ‘President’), but also to their betrayal, their violence, their abuse. They are one-dimensional bogeymen; Big Bad Wolves next to Monroe’s Little Red Riding Hood.

Is it true what Kleijer says, that we would rather see Marilyn Monroe portrayed as a ‘feminist heroine’? In recent years, Monroe’s life and career have been viewed through all sorts of new lenses. Suddenly we saw Marilyn-Monroe-the-proto-feminist and Marilyn-Monroe-the-girl boss. Suddenly we saw, in photos in which she with a frown Ulysses reading, Marilyn-Monroede intellectual. Is that feminism – or is it marketing? In de Volkskrant writes Herien Wensink about the Monroe that is being placed in blonde, which she calls ‘revolutionary’. This “fragile” Monroe, she writes, is “a Marilyn for the MeToo era.” But shouldn’t a feminist heroine be strong? And is it really Monroe’s vulnerability that Dominik in blonde shows – or is it something else?

In blonde the broad outlines of Monroe’s life are correct, but the side roads are made up. To arrive at a clear story, Joyce Carol Oates writes in the preface to her book, she has simplified or otherwise adapted some events. But the worst things that Monroe in blonde happened—rapes, plots, abortions, and attempted murder—simply never happened. Dominik himself calls his film a ‘rescue fantasy’, but the fetishism that blonde It’s not about saving – it’s about suffering. Dominik revels in that suffering, stretching it as far as possible. He fantasizes about it and adores it. He lifts Monroe’s mask, but finds another mask behind it. He exchanges one abstraction for another, the sex symbol for the martyr.

As simple as feminism seemed at the time of #MeToo, that’s how complex it turned out to be in the period after. You read it in the pieces that de Volkskrant published about blonde, in which first the strong and then the vulnerable woman are bombarded as a feminist example. Is it true that in the post #MeToo era we only want to see “strong” female characters? Or are we talking about the film studios and streaming services that ‘strong female character’ elevated to a movie category? The question we ask ourselves after #MeToo is this: if a woman identifies as a victim, is she strong or vulnerable?

Marilyn Monroe was not a feminist heroine. She was neither an intellectual nor an activist businesswoman. But she was outspoken. She was witty, witty and a little strange. In blonde we jump from the 1930s to the 1950s, from Monroe’s childhood to her first Hollywood success. It is precisely in that gap in time that we could find the answer to the question of why she chose acting in the first place. It is precisely in that hole that her willpower and passion are hidden. The Monroe that Dominik us in blonde shows, was a woman who happened to anything, but the real Monroe made choices, had opinions, known color. The real Monroe was ambitious and eager to learn, pouring all her heart into her craft. The real Monroe was indeed a victim, but victimhood, as we now know better than ever, is complicated. It cannot be captured in a story that seeks extremes. The Monroe Dominik shows us is a bare-breasted wandering soul, a victim viewed with the male gaze. This Monroe must suffer so that she can be saved by Dominik. The real Monroe was smart and stupid, lively and lost. Both victim and heroine. The real Monroe was paradoxical, complicated, interesting. The real Monroe was human.

For four hours, Richard Avedon took pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Photos where she jokes and laughs, takes different poses and makes different faces, like the professional she was. Of all those photos we chose only one, only one became world famous: the one in which she looks lost. This Monroe, we say to each other, is the real Monroe. Is that the story she told about herself? Or is it the story we made of her?

blonde is now available on Netflix

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