Like many directors, Woody Allen addresses his influences through emulation—we’ve seen his cinematic replies to Bergman and Groucho Marx and Tolstoy and the RKO comedies of the 1930s and 1940s in which the conflicts of the rich were glamorized and celebrated. Allen’s engagement is not with headlines but with the Criterion Collection. But isn’t this the first task of an artist—to chase after the communion experienced with other works of art?
At the center of Blue Jasmine is an anti-heroine in the style of Tennessee Williams. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a woman decentered but not incapacitated by a fragility that magnifies into illness. Like Blanche Dubois, Jasmine thwarts others while she hurts herself. Her handicap, foremost, is fantasy—the single-minded belief in the whitewashing properties of money and social status.
Blue Jasmine nods to the serendipitous design that allows some women to find shelter in such privilege. Sally Hawkins, who plays Jasmine’s working-class sister, Ginger, voices her sibling’s good luck like a litany. Jasmine (formerly Jeannette) got the “good genes,” leading to better opportunities and better men. Jasmine’s genetic fortune reminds us that opportunity in all its forms is rarely democratic—the condition and bestowal of beauty is not merit-based or fair. And when you look at Jasmine—observe her bone structure and intonations and that internal scrim that keeps her apart from her surroundings—it becomes clear that she’s spoiled and lazy and completely unsuited to a life that her sister can tolerate. These adopted sisters, related by chance, associate only when their playing fields are leveled. Ginger calls on Jasmine when she has some money, and Jasmine leans on her sister when she’s in need of it.
Allen has frequently exploited the clash of high and low culture to comedic effect—in Small Time Crooks, for example, the crassly simple couple played by the director and by Tracey Ullman attempt to lift themselves out of the ghetto by studying with the wealthy but underhanded Hugh Grant. In its visual approach, its dialogue, its actors, Blue Jasmine bridges a variety of tones that could make the film equally comedic. Since Allen is notoriously hands-off as a director, his vision of a picture can perhaps be understood through his casting. He chose Blanchett, that greyhound of acting—savage, heartbreaking, neurotic and occasionally kind, paces ahead of any actor—as his lead.
Every one of the performers gives more nuance and modulation than the writing suggests—the accents might be rough but the performances are not broad. There is the heartbreakingly hopeful Sally Hawkins, playing a plucky woman encountering her own limitations. Ginger willfully idolizes her sister, but she is equally intent in believing in the rightness of her own choices. Bobby Cannavale does his best Stanley Kowalski impression, but manages to make himself more than a brute. Blanchett has some of the film’s best physical comedy when Cannavale’s good natured Chili lunges for a bear hug. She shakes him off, squirming exactly as Allen himself might have done for comic effect.
But this is also a tragic story: imagine Jasmine’s internal narrative as the mind’s impulses unregulated or out of proportion. Any of us might have a stray moment in which the replay of a memory becomes so strong it overtakes the present. After all, most of us live in reply to the past and in anticipation of a future. But here we see the relentlessness of mental illness, the narrow selfishness of it—its persuasive visions and priorities track close enough to reality but far enough to mislead Jasmine to the point of terrifying dead ends.
Her pathology—which straddles mild antipathy to others and poisonous dissociation—allows her to take on no guilt, no accountability. When she meets Peter Sarsgaard’s aspiring diplomat, and he asks if she has children, Jasmine redacts all details of her previous life. Instead of a marriage to a Madoff type (Alec Baldwin) who kills himself in jail, she was married to a beloved surgeon who died of a heart attack. Instead of being an adoptive mother to a grown child who will no longer speak to her, there was “not enough time” to have children with her deceased husband.
Williams’ problems, and Allen’s, are the problems of Flaubert. The world lets you down in countless ways, especially if you have expectations about your station in life. But while Madame Bovary was intoxicated by a narrative of romance, Jasmine is held aloft by a fictional lifestyle. Her ambitions are closer to those of the kids inThe Bling Ring, where belongings are a palimpsest over poor origins, corrupt partnerships, and a voided self. Each time Jasmine appears in her woefully overused Chanel blazer and expensive but unappealing gold flats, you understand she’s a victim of some received ideals about good taste and the good life.
In Jasmine, Sarsgaard’s Dwight finds the perfect throwback wife. She is ideal, of course, because she’s a self-authored fiction. Maybe this is Allen’s triumph. Jasmine is a villain as much as a victim, blithely ignoring all manner of trespasses—fiscal, amatory, familial, filial—until she feels betrayed and powerless. Then she becomes a perpetrator of the film’s worst crimes.
For every wrong note in the film—Sarsgaard’s smooth-talking cipher, Ginger’s sunny San Francisco apartment which would be enviable slumming to most people, the disdainful view of working class jobs and people—there are the film’s intersections which are eerily right.
By chance, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) encounters Jasmine on the street. Years before, Jasmine blithely encouraged her then brother-in-law to invest all his money in an ill-fated plan devised by her ponzi-scheming husband. Augie and Ginger lose everything, and eventually divorce. How often do you cross paths with the person who altered your life for the worse? The encounter between victim and perpetrator is pointed and uncomfortable; more significantly, the exchange unspools the fiction Jasmine has been spinning to enchant her new boyfriend and to erase her shadowy past.
At this stage in life, the introverted and private Woody Allen likely does not have the opportunity to observe the lives of others unnoticed. The fabrication of a creature as convincing as Jasmine is largely thanks to her interpreter, Cate Blanchett. Still, the film impresses because of the conflicts that the dramaturg cooked up—both in the characters’ psychology (the eerily accurate way Jasmine ignores rumors of her husband’s infidelity and criminal activity until she’s away from the public) and in the story’s dialogue with current events.
Cate Blanchett, as astute a commentator as any on Allen’s art, says that the central characters he doesn’t play are nonetheless Allen. Woody first exploited the story of financier Bernie Madoff to comic effect in a story for The New Yorker. Madoff’s suicidal victims reincarnate as lobsters, and look for revenge in a posh Upper East Side restaurant. Blue Jasmine might be the director’s darker response to the thought of losing everything. Consider that he, like Jasmine, lost his children when he split apart the family he created. Allen likely has to separate himself from the memory of his kids in order not to feel utterly dreadful every day. (Or maybe his narcissism—his relentless elaboration of his own concerns and amusements—has always been that kind of disavowal of accountability and connection.)
“The heart has its reasons,” Allen has said, both in fiction and in life. It’s a paltry excuse for bad behavior, but the adage reminds us that we are creatures of impulse as much as of intellect. It can be a joyless task to live mindfully; none of us manages it all the time. So while Jasmine’s unchecked selfishness has dire effects, her fever dreams are a response to a sullied world, bestowing a kind of agency we all need. Jasmine’s fate could be either exalted or ordinary, as much along the lines of Billy Wilder’s dirty fairy tales as they are of Tennessee Williams’ gothic dramas. In Blue Jasmine, Allen reminds us that in large and small ways we are all capable of willful as well as hysterical blindness.