There’s something eerie about Woody Allen’s versatility. While some would be quick to accuse Allen of making the same film over and over again with the same archetypes repeatedly, his ability to oscillate between genres, tones, and moods is astonishing. He can do straight romantic comedy (Scoop), humane dramedy (Annie Hall/Manhattan), laugh out loud absurdity (Love and Death/Bananas), Keaton and Chaplin inspired slapstick (Sleeper), Bergman-esque ruminations on human contact (Another Woman, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, and September), German Expressionist comedies (Shadows and Fog), and even put comedy and tragedy up against one another to juxtapose and complement (Crimes and Misdemeanors/Melinda and Melinda). With his newest film, Blue Jasmine, Allen comes the closest he’s been in years to perfection and the closest he’s come in his career to making a horror film.
After her Bernie Madoff-like Wall Street fraud is sent to jail, leaving her in emotional, psychological, and financial ruins, Jasmine, nee Jeanette, is forced to leave her life of luxury in New York City and relocate herself to her adopted sister’s “homey” apartment in San Francisco. The Park Avenue weaned Jasmine must learn to cope with her new surroundings and create a new life for herself while dealing with her sister and her “loser” boyfriend and ex-husband.
Let me tell you that the synopsis I wrote above is a terrible description of the film. Not a word of it captures the film’s hypnotic power or emotional potency. Not to mention the fact that I seem to make it sound like a clever fish out of water comedy, which, even if Allen did do that kind of film (he may have done so in the past, but I can’t recall one off the top of my head), it would hardly be “conventional”. Instead, Allen gives us something that is both fairly typical of his work as an auteur and yet unlike almost any of his films. This may be not only because of the strong screenplay, but also because of the outstanding ensemble, led by Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, and Alec Baldwin.
Materiality is a big part of the film, as all the characters, “good” and “bad” are somehow drawn to it. Jasmine puts the right accent on when she says Louis Vuitton; her sister, Ginger, is transfixed by a fendy bag; Jasmine’s jail bird husband, Hal, insists on living a decadent life, as any Ponzi schemer should; and the rest of the cast of unfortunate, often self-loathing characters are defined by their desire for “stuff”. The deep contrast between Park Avenue natives Jasmine and Hal and San Francisco Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and current boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is that though the latter bunch is as in love with materiality as anyone else, they are, at least, satisfied with what they have. They, unlike Jasmine and Hal, do not continually seek for more to satiate their desires. For the first time, New York as a locale isn’t the good guy.
Instead, New York operates as more of a barely achievable dream, inhabited by the wealthy who scoff at the concept at falling from grace via working at the shoe store they once frequented. With its cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (who worked with Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona and with Almodóvar on Talk to Her), New York doesn’t have the same romantic feel it has had in previous Allen films. It’s not the romantic black and white of Manhattan or Stardust Memories, nor the Depression-era home of a Fellini-esque Amarcord story, as in Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Instead, New York takes an unreal, dreamlike glow. The buildings on Wall Street and Park Avenue are shine like the beautiful bracelet that Hal gives to Jasmine for her birthday. It’s the kind of glow one would imagine Gatsby saw when he looked into the Green Light: The American Dream. And it’s all everything Jasmine ever wanted, and nothing she could imagine she would lose.
San Francisco, by contrast, is closer to the unnoticeable palette of Annie Hall. It’s important and it’s a character, like all of Allen’s locales, but it isn’t the kind of thing that Jasmine would take notice of. While New York retains a shiny polish, San Francisco, looks drabber. This is primarily because the film is seen through Jasmine’s eyes, and so the financial and local upheaval would cause her to look down her nose at anything that wasn’t a few blocks away from Saks. Ginger’s home is “homey”, and everything is greyish or quaint, but the city doesn’t turn Jasmine on like Manhattan did. Was it merely because of the city itself or what the city represented to her? Only when she meets another man, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), does San Francisco glow as only New York did, with a certain nod to that famous Gordon Willis shot from one of Allen’s earlier films.
Although Jasmine takes center stage in the film, Ginger is as strong as a player in the film, her life going in a completely different direction than Jasmine’s. She falls for the “losers” while Jasmine was swept off of her feet right before finishing college. But Ginger’s rebelliousness and down to earth style does not grant her the objectivity one would think she would have in contrast to the delusions of Jasmine. True, they aren’t as severe, but Ginger nonetheless is swayed by the people around her. Jasmine is swayed by money. Sally Hawkins, who made a star turning performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, may not exactly nail the accent her character might have had for the film, but it doesn’t matter. She’s charming, sympathetic, and the fairly stable one between she and Jasmine. What she lacks in immediate brains she gains in charm. But Ginger is a distinctively submissive character; to her boyfriend, to her ex-husband, and, most importantly, to Jasmine. Jasmine’s psychosis and impulsivity begins to show up in some of Ginger’s actions, leading her down a path where you’re honestly not sure who’s right. The dynamic that is shared on screen by Hawkins and Blanchett is perfect, both knowing when to push and pull, and, rightfully, creating a 21st century dynamic worthy of Hannah and Her Sisters. Both of them have problems and it’s merely how they cope with it.
Jasmine is one of Woody Allen’s most fascinating characters. She is a culmination of numerous female driven character studies. She is elegant, articulate, spoiler, and utterly insane. How often does one encounter a performance in a Woody Allen film that is unquestionably great? OH, well, pretty often. But how often does it become iconic? Dianne Wiest, Penelope Cruz, and Mira Sorvino may all have Oscars, but their roles, as memorable as they are, have never defined Allen’s work quite like Diane Keaton’s eponymous Annie Hall. And although extremely different in tone and even performance, Blanchett’s turn as Jasmine may be the first actress since Keaton (or Farrow) to become part of Woody Allen’s own iconography. Blanchett makes Jasmine not only a figure of immense pity, but one of horror. Jasmine could have easily just been quirkily nutty in another actress’s hands, but Blanchett, channeling Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine is a completely different creature. From the shift of an eye to the subtle grimace she makes in San Francisco, Blanchett is an absolute powerhouse in the film, brining Blue Jasmine already to a status that will surely be a staple of Allen’s already iconic career. Allegations of shrewishness and neuroses in his female characters notwithstanding, Jasmine seems to be the those accusations in one character, in in a self-aware way. You can hear her seething at the very idea. There is one particular scene in the film that is played as both comedy and tragedy. She, babysitting Ginger’s sons, reveals her life story to them, and says, “There’s only so many traumas a person can stand before they take to the streets and start screaming.” Jasmine, though unlikable, deeply manic, and undeserving of our sympathy and sometimes even monstrous, has lost everything. She’s the kind of character that would be a muse to someone like Lars von Trier, not Woody Allen. And yet, with Allen’s trademark pathos and Blanchett’s nightmarishly good performance, Jasmine retains her humanity.
Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating and noticeable aspects of the film is that every character in the film is completely over the top, even for Woody Allen. From Jasmine’s psychotic ramblings to Ginger’s deep indecisive neuroses, it feels like self-parody at times. And I think it is exactly that. After having examined what feels like hundreds of deep, dysfunctional, soulful, and ultimately neurotic female characters, Woody Allen seems to want to examine his own examinations via an outrageous character study, through the eyes of one of his most insane characters. What is odd about the film is that despite unquestionably a Woody Allen film, and the lines being undoubtedly from one of his scripts, it seems so meta and self-reflexive that it doesn’t always feel like a Woody Allen film. The actors, all at the top of their game, elevate the already superb script to a height where it becomes something else entirely. Ginger’s quirks are unmistakably an amalgamation of everything Diane Keaton played from Annie Hall to Mary Willkie in Manhattan, but is even more so that of Mia Farrow’s characters. Her neuroses and constant worrying resemble everything from Radio Days to Husbands and Wives, from The Purple Rose of Cairo to Shadows and Fog; Ginger is the epitome of the affectations his characters often have. The male characters remind one less of the hyper intellectual characters he has used occasionally and more of the “cast of The Godfather” line from Annie Hall. But their actual dialogue is as purely Allen as anything. Only Jasmine represents all the falsities and flaws of his characters, but brought to the nth degree. She’s Mary Willkie on steroids. Her insecurities are prone to consuming her, and only vodka, valium, and Louis Vuitton can keep her calm. And many of the themes Allen has explored throughout his filmography, from the meaning of life to the “decay of contemporary culture” find themselves in the film, not in the same overtly Bergman-esque way of Interiors or Another Woman, but subtly. But distancing himself from New York and making the city he loves so much the villain of the film makes Allen’s meta-commentary all the more sly.
Despite the dark tone of Blue Jasmine, that is hardly to say that the film isn’t funny. Allen likes walking that fine line between tragedy and comedy and, again, does so brilliantly. In essence, Allen’s balance of comedy, tragedy, and horror resembles Hannah and Her Sisters, but more severe and more affected. Blanchett nails her comedic timing, and Hawkins, already proving her worth as Poppy, channels the neuroses needed to make her character thrive on screen perfectly. Baldwin is wonderfully scuzzball-y, and Cannavale is also excellent as slightly washed up. The cast’s ability to slightly subvert the script to something un-Woody Allen and yet retain the perfectly comedic tone of the dialogue is outstanding.
Blue Jasmine is something of a masterpiece.
The film utilizes a musical motif throughout the film: Rogers and Hart’s seminal “Blue Moon”. It only seems perfectly appropriate. Hal saw Jasmine standing alone at the party, without a dream in her heart other than to become something of substance, something she still wishes for even as she is down on her luck and in a delusional frenzy trying to make something substantial of herself again, with no money. And at that point, she was without a love of her own. Soon she would find it; not Hal and not her son, but the security she thought wealth would give her. This tune, though played in a tinkle-y melody, ringing as if from one of Jasmine’s decadent parties, has a superbly melancholic effect in Blue Jasmine. When everything is said and done in this, one of Allen’s’ Greekest of tragedies, Jasmine will be left there, singing “Blue Moon”.