Two acclaimed (male) auteurs returned to cinema screens in 2022 with wildly different, wildly ambitious films that have both been accused, to varying degrees, of being either anti-women or outright misogynistic.
But are they?
Andrew Dominik took on Marilyn Monroe; adapting Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 tome Blonde to look at the life and demise of Norma Jean Baker, the iconic sex symbol of the 20th century.
Todd Field instead created Lydia Tár, a successful composer whose downfall, while self-inflicted, is very much part of ‘cancel culture’; a 21st century phenomenon.
Blonde and Tár are not anti-women, nor misogynistic films but in their own way they are anti-power and, more pointedly, anti-society.
Dominik’s film takes a real character, the most famous actress and model of all time, and looks at her life through the lens of the men around her and her tragic suicide.
His Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is entirely powerless. A little-girl-lost, constantly objectified and manipulated and coerced by the empowered around her, leaving her clinging to both her sanity and her sense of self, even as she is subsumed by the Marilyn persona and fame.
Critics challenged that the objectification Blonde depicts in fact extends to Dominik’s film itself.
Blonde has little interest in factual accuracy, or even realism. It jumps between aspect ratios, and from black and white to colour. There is ostentatious shot selection, fast-forwarding, even body-mounted cameras as a furious Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) prepares to batter Monroe over an array of nude photos she posed for before they even met.
Dominik pointedly uses some of the iconic images from Monroe’s life but twists and distorts them, making them nightmarish and ghastly. In his review Bilge Ebiri wrote: “At times, the movie feels like a slaughterhouse seen from the animal’s point of view.”
But nonetheless there has been a painstaking effort to recreate the images from Monroe’s life. Some scenes, including Monroe’s suicide, were actually filmed in the very buildings where they happened.
The director’s own words have hardly helped Blonde’s cause among the Monroe faithful who see it as a vile exploitation of a tragic heroine; a film that overlooks her many successes and her mid-20th century feminism.
In one interview the Aussie director referred to Monroe and Jane Russell’s characters in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as ‘well-dressed whores’, something not entirely inaccurate given their pursuing of transactional relationships with rich men (though they were empowered for that era).
However, perhaps the most telling Dominik quote regarding Blonde and what he’s trying to do with the film came from an interview with Sight and Sound where he said: “I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images.”
What Dominik is saying with those images is that Marilyn was powerless, and despite her outsized persona, she has little agency, even over her own body. She looks longingly at the 30-foot-high billboards flaunting her figure — in reality Norma Jean is still that little girl from the show’s menacing, haunting, surreal opening.
Despite her popularity she is lonely, despite her on-screen magnetism she is falling apart, a haywire mess of neurosis and self-doubt, yearning for a father figure or for someone to rescue her (even we, the audience, are pleading for her to be rescued but we are as powerless as Marilyn).
Her powerlessness is underlined in two of the most harrowing scenes in Blonde. One where she undergoes an abortion (the limelight of the cinema set replaced with the blinding glare of an operating lamp) and another, Dominik’s distasteful and repulsive coup de grace of a listless, detiorating Monroe fellating JFK on his bed. It’s difficult to watch — but that is the point.
Monroe was not rescued, the world — the powers that be — failed her. She died in 1962 at the age of just 36, a likely overdose. The credits run against a background of a starry sky, the nightmare finally over.
In contrast to Blonde, Todd Field is very much interested in reality with Tár, a film much more widely acclaimed and accepted (Blonde was particularly loathed in the United States).
Lydia Tár is brilliantly written and, crucially, written to be believable and seem part of the audience’s reality; she is interviewed by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik (who plays himself), her exploits and tribulations are covered by social media (there’s already a popular Lydia Tár Twitter account) and no one would not be shocked to see a profile of her in a glossy magazine.
That affinity to reality has come back to haunt Tár somewhat.
In that beginning interview Tár namechecks real life composer Marina Alsop who shares several similarities with her: both are lesbians, both head-up prestigious orchestras and both are married to orchestral musicians.
In The New York Times, critic Zachary Woolfe wrote that “the protagonist is clearly based partly on Alsop”.
Cue the backlash.
Alsop told The Sunday Times that when she saw the film: “I was offended: I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.”
“To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking. I think all women and all feminists should be bothered by that kind of depiction.”
“There are so many men — actual, documented men — this film could have been based on but, instead, it puts a woman in the role but gives her all the attributes of those men. That feels antiwoman.”
Blanchett responded to Alsop in the UK press:
“It’s a very provocative film and it will elicit a lot of very strong responses for people.
“What [director Todd Field] and I wanted to do was to create a really lively conversation. So there’s no right or wrong responses to works of art. It’s not a film about conducting, and I think that the circumstances of the character are entirely fictitious.
“It’s a meditation on power and power is genderless. It is a meditation on power and the corrupting nature of power and I think that that doesn’t necessarily happen only in cultural circles.”
There are a litany of differences between Tár and Blonde as pieces of filmmaking, despite both being films, essentially about power (or the lack of it).
Blonde is more a kaleidoscope of images, whereas Field instead uses several prolonged set-piece scenes to tell a story of a woman losing her grip on reality (just like Monroe does) as her grip on power weakens.
For years, it is suggested, Lydia has abused her position and her talent to manipulate life to her advantage.
The fact that she is a woman does not make the film anti-women, Field simply wants to highlight that power imbalances go across both genders, it is just a symptom of an unfair society that empowers dangerous people.
Blonde and Tár are both brilliant films, both works of art that people will draw different responses and raise different questions.
This is a good thing, this should be celebrated.
Lydia Tár would have loved Blonde, by the way.