It’s not that Theron is a stranger to nudity. Her filmography, particularly when she was in her twenties, has plenty of roles where she shed her clothes. She even modelled for a nude Playboy pictorial in 1999. But the marketing for Atomic Blonde, positioning Theron as a sleek, female successor to the likes of Bourne and Bond – only transplanted into the neon ‘80s – led me to expect a ‘strong female character’ type. The kind of heroine who’s preternaturally perfect. A woman able to defeat opponents with agile ease, who’s sexy without being sexualised.
With this in mind, I was surprised that Atomic Blonde introduced Lorraine, bruised, battered, nude and immersed in an ice bath. It’s not the opening shot of the film – there’s a place-setting prologue to introduce our ‘80s Berlin spy-film setting first – nor is it the beginning of Lorraine’s story. This is the chronological midpoint, occurring after all the requisite action (hence the bruises) and before a rigorous debriefing where allegiances are tested and twists are carefully uncoiled. Regardless of its position in the narrative though, this is the audience’s first introduction to the titular atomic blonde. So why is she naked?
There are a few answers to that question.
Narratively, it’s a clever choice because it suggests both Lorraine’s strength and her vulnerability. Strength not only in Theron’s toned physique – though that’s certainly a factor, she looks fit – but in the recognition that she’s weathered these bruises and survived. Vulnerability found in the inherent vulnerability of nudity, but also in her slumped posture, the physicality that subtly suggests she’s about to enter a truly challenging gauntlet.
It’s more interesting to look at how Theron is filmed, and how that reflects the film’s broader intent. Director David Leitch – fresh off co-directing John Wick with Chad Stahelski – and Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela shoot their star like she’s a prize fighter recovering from a brutal brawl. The implication there is that she’s shot like she’s a man – the camera doesn’t leer at her, but nor does it fastidiously avoid her nipples (gasp!) entering the frame. She’s aestheticised and, thus, objectified but significantly she isn’t overtly sexualised. The scene’s purpose is not to arouse its audience, but to arouse admiration for the ordeal Lorraine has endured (and that, soon enough, we’ll watch).
Critically, this suggests the difference between Stahelski and Leitch’s approaches to action filmmaking, particularly when contrasted with John Wick (on which they collaborated) and John Wick Chapter 2 (which was Stahelski alone). The two men have obvious similarities behind the camera; as former stuntmen, each appreciates the aesthetic appeal of a good action scene. Wick 2 suggests that Stahelski is fascinated by balletic grace and sartorial extravagance; Chapter 2 dialled back the brusqueness of its predecessor to goggle at expensive suits, expensive guns and expensive art galleries. If Atomic Blonde is anything to go by, Leitch’s contribution to the partnership was precisely that brusqueness that Wick 2 was missing; as Theron’s bruises suggest, Blonde is not a film that pulls its punches.
That’s encapsulated in the film’s much-buzzed-about ‘stairway fight.’ It’s a legitimately impressive piece of fight choreography, featuring scrappy, no-holds-barred clashes between Lorraine and a bevy of Eastern German goons. You feel every punch, favourably recalling the early Bourne films. Those bruises were earned. Significantly, we never get the impression that our heroine is cutting through a horde of anonymous cannon fodder. Across the lengthy scene, she takes on only a handful of opponents, and each fight struck me as legitimately close. I’m less enamoured of the cinematography, though; while I appreciate the intent of providing intensity through an ‘unbroken’ shot, the seams in the hidden cuts are too obvious for it to be as effective as intended.
Theron’s nudity is not used only to evoke the fragile physicality that makes that stairway scene work as well as it does. A dalliance with French spy Delphine (Sofia Boutella) soon turns physical, climaxing in a sex scene that’s utterly disinterested in soberly fading to black. It’s not quite exploitative – this ain’t Blue is the Warmest Colour – but the way Theron’s (and Boutella’s) nudity is framed is starkly different to the aforementioned icebath introduction. It’s sexualised, of course. But there’s a distance to it, too. Leitch’s camera pulls back throughout the scene, concluding with a medium shot, with the women’s bodies doubled in a mirror. That distance lends a sense of ambiguity: is there a real spark between Lorraine and Delphine, is it purely espionage …or is it something in between?
Atomic Blonde’s ambiguity is consciously calculated in this scene, and throughout. That suits the aura of opacity shrouding the story’s machinations. Yet it also unbalances the film on the whole. You see, Leitch’s strength are found in aesthetics: the thump of Eurhythmics on the soundtrack, the flash of Theron’s blonde hair, the improbable neon lighting of Lorraine’s Berlin apartment. That flashiness distracts from the intricacies of the le Carré-light screenplay, which shouldn’t necessarily be a problem – you’re here for Theron kicking ass, not spygames. But Leitch over-emphasises the plot (the film really doesn’t need to be 2 hours long, for starters), which manages to telegraph its twists while obscuring the particulars in a web of convolution.
It didn’t have to be this way; the easiest fix would have been to cut out fifteen or so minutes of exposition (we’ve all seen films about secret spy lists before) and let us figure it out after the credits. If I think back to that sex scene though, it’s demonstrative of why I loved so many individual elements of Atomic Blonde without really loving the film. The film is crafted with an emotional obscurity. Yes, it’s by design – Lorraine’s loyalties are supposed to be obscured throughout – but limited my ability to engage in the narrative beyond “I hope Charlize Theron kicks some ass.”
Theron is basically playing a female James Bond here, but even Bond – with all his gadgets and girls – has an emotional core you can relate to. I don’t think the absence of that element can be credited to Theron, who comes across as a real person throughout in a role that could’ve easily played as robotic. But despite baring his star’s body throughout – to good effect – Leitch fails to reveal her motivations until the final moments; an understandable choice, but one that left the film feeling like little more than an aesthetic exercise.