Prior to its release this week, the controversy surrounding Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe film Blonde centered on its NC-17 rating. According to reports, the film was delayed by a year as Netflix wrangled with director Andrew Dominik over the final cut, apparently hoping to avoid the rating. Rumors swirled about the extreme sexual content that might have earned it.
The true mystery, however, was why the streamer would care. An NC-17 rating greatly limits theatrical distribution and marketing, making it a commercial disaster for a traditional studio. But this should not trouble Netflix, which typically gives its prestige films like Blonde a very limited theatrical run in order to qualify them for awards. Nor has Netflix shied away from hosting extreme, unrated content (like Gaspar Noé’s sex-forward drama Love) on its platform before.
Viewing the finished film, it’s unclear if Netflix won any concessions at all from the uncompromising Dominik, who told Screen Daily it had recruited editor Jennifer Lame in 2021 “to curb the excesses of the movie.” Blonde, which features an extraordinary performance from Ana de Armas as Monroe, is still plenty excessive. It runs nearly three hours long, contains numerous shocking and degrading scenes, and has an unremittingly bleak tone.
The MPA ascribes Blonde’s NC-17 rating to “some sexual content.” There are a couple of scenes in particular that this might refer to. [Ed. note: Descriptions of these moments involve sexual assault and violence.] The first occurs early in the film, and depicts Monroe, at the start of her acting career, being raped by a studio executive in his office. It’s very unpleasant, but not particularly graphic. This scene is revisited in a later flashback which is more visually explicit, and undeniably pushes Blonde into NC-17 territory.
The second scene, much discussed already, shows a drugged and strung-out Monroe visiting President John F. Kennedy in a hotel suite. He forces her to fellate him while he conducts a phone conversation and watches images of rockets, artillery, and flying saucers on TV. Dominik lingers on this act, in very tight close-up, for an uncomfortably long time.
There are other moments in Blonde that aren’t explicitly sexual, but still carry a hefty shock value, and might have figured into the MPA’s rating decision. There’s some violence, and some no-holds-barred depiction of miscarriage and abortion. Not once, but twice, in two separate contexts (both medical), Dominik stages what can only be described as a vaginal point-of-view shot that is at once graphic, surreal, and horribly invasive.
But my gut instinct, on finishing Blonde, is that no particular shot or scene is responsible either for the NC-17 rating, or for Netflix’s evident unease about it. If there was an obvious edit to make, that long struggle over the film’s final cut could surely have been resolved more quickly — one way or the other.
Dominik, much admired by his peers and by some critics, is a gifted director. Although he writes his own screenplays, he is a first and foremost a brilliant visual stylist, whose striking images lend a mythic dimension to his material, which has, until now, been very masculine: true-crime drama Chopper, elegiac Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, hitman thriller Killing Them Softly. Blonde is adapted from a novel — specifically, not a biography — about a half-imagined Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates. The sprawling work is controversial in its own right, but has a heavyweight literary reputation. Adapting it has been a passion project of Dominik’s for at least a decade.
The thought of Dominik returning to fiction features after a decade of frustration, and bringing his mythic sensibilities to Monroe’s story and iconography, was exciting. Here, too, was a single-minded director who might not shy away from the thornier parts of Oates’ vision. Evidently, he doesn’t. But it turns out that he is sorely lacking in other qualities — compassion, restraint, a fundamental interest in his lead character as a human being — that might have made Blonde anything other than the grotesque endurance test that it is.
A film like Blonde can be explicit or challenging. Monroe’s carefree, ditzy, sexy image belied a troubled and complicated performer who led a tragically short life, and who was certainly exploited and abused by the Hollywood machine. It’s as important to highlight that now as ever. Blonde seeks to underline this by focusing on the tension between Norma Jeane, the sensitive, damaged young woman, and Marilyn, the avatar of external desire that ultimately consumes her.
The trouble is that Dominik’s mythologizing tendency, and his insatiable hunger for arresting imagery, undercut his own theme to disastrous effect. He doesn’t have enough interest in Norma Jeane to build a personality for her, or a sense of her achievements, outside of the ceaseless miseries heaped upon her by others. Meanwhile, he indulges a shallow fascination with the iconography of Marilyn, using every tool at his disposal to re-create film scenes and photoshoots with astonishing accuracy. There are constant changes in film stock, aspect ratio, lens and color treatment, alongside liberal use of CGI to blend de Armas into the frame, or to introduce a fantastical dimension to the reenactment. Dominik’s dazzling technique not only fails to distract from the film’s wearying lack of tonal variation, but is in complete thrall to the dehumanizing image factory that the film is supposed to be critiquing.
De Armas puts in a superhuman performance; it hardly matters that her Cuban accent is detectable when her diction, tone, and physical bearing channel Marilyn in such an uncanny way. But it’s an achingly personal performance, too; beneath the impersonation, she is raw, vulnerable and volatile. Dominik responds to her openness by putting her through the wringer. It feels as though she is crying for the entire, bloated length of the movie — and all too frequently naked. His appetite for attractively posed and lit suffering is insatiable, and it leaves a very bad taste. (Dominik hasn’t helped himself in a typically combative press tour; in one interview with Sight and Sound, he revealed a disdain for most of Monroe’s films, and called her classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes “romanticized whoredom.”)
Context matters, even in the notoriously inflexible realm of film classification. It’s in this context that Blonde’s most scandalously shocking images, and its NC-17 rating, need to be understood. Blonde is not taking a cheap shot at notoriety by including a few boundary-pushing scenes, nor is it a humane drama challenging us to see ugliness we would rather ignore. The whole film is like this. It is the work of a filmmaker drunk on his own image-making power, lining up shot after beautiful, shocking, tasteless shot, just because he can. You can’t cut its gross excesses because it has a limitless supply.
In his Screen Daily interview, Dominik praised Netflix for supporting the film in spite of its distaste for it: “It’s much easier to support stuff when you like it. It’s much harder when you don’t,” he said. Perhaps Netflix’s anxiety over the NC-17 rating was really anxiety over a film that, on a human level, it just didn’t like — and that no amount of reediting could redeem.