As my friend and colleague Peter Biskind says, Blue Jasmine is the first Woody Allen film in a while that doesn’t feel like a promising draft that might have benefited from another run through the typewriter. Rather, I think the writer-director accomplished exactly what he set out to accomplish this time. It’s just, I’m not sure how much I liked the result. It’s not you, Woody, it’s me.
Blue Jasmine might be Allen’s cruelest film ever, which is saying something, since this is a director who’s never been particularly generous toward his characters. In significant ways, though, it’s also one of Allen’s most human movies. Mild spoiler alert: this is a film that draws deep from the well of A Streetcar Named Desire. Cate Blanchett, who has played Blanche du Bois onstage, is here cast as an updated version of Tennessee Williams’s anti-heroine, Blanche’s reveries about a faded Southern aristocracy replaced with contemporary delusions bred by life as lived among the 1 percent in Manhattan and the Hamptons. The film begins with Jasmine (née Jeanette) arriving in San Francisco, broke but still flying first class, the dazed victim of a financial scandal involving her former husband. Now homeless, she is forced to rely on the comfort of her estranged sister, Ginger, who is romantically involved with a blue-collar lug named Chili. (Although we see Chili in a wife-beater, he refrains from shouting, Hey, Ginnnnn-gerrrrrr!!!!)
Like Streetcar, Blue Jasmine is the story of Jasmine’s further humbling, of upper-class pretension dashing against the rock of working-class earthiness; also like Streetcar, Allen’s work shares its heroine’s snobbery, the director as appalled as Jasmine by Chili’s and Ginger’s gaucheries, their lack of interest in high culture, their aspirational void. A scene where Chili and Ginger try to set up Jasmine, still clinging to her Chanel bag, with a schlubby, grease-monkey pal of Chili’s is cringe-inducing, though more because of the writer-director’s condescension toward his working-class characters than for their cluelessness as matchmakers. That said, Allen does grant Chili and Ginger good hearts, and as a director he has elevated his occasionally tone-deaf script by casting Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins, both excellent here.
I was glad to see Allen trying to break out of his usual movie universe, that hermetic Upper East Side fantasyland (extending to Europe) where money is almost never an issue and even teenagers go to the opera and dig Sidney Bechet. Blue Jasmine is engaged with contemporary culture and social politics to a degree that Allen’s films have rarely if ever been since maybeManhattan. (Though I think in 2013 even a cosseted Park Avenue wife would know how to use a computer.) And has he ever really tackled class before, aside from Match Point, which might just as easily have been set in Balzac’s Paris? The new film means to be a post-crash fable, and the fact that we leave Jasmine as blind and delusional as we found her is, perhaps, a nice satirical point (one Elizabeth Warren might appreciate). As human drama, though, it’s all a bit cruel. Jasmine, you see, is not just blind and delusional—she is also alcoholic and mentally ill, and looked at one way the film is a serial humiliation of a woman who, no matter how awful and pretentious and complicit-or-not in her husband’s crimes she may be, we come to have affection for. This is thanks in large part to Blanchett, who allows us to glimpse the fear, panic, and vulnerability beneath Jasmine’s surface, even at its most lacquered. The performance is like watching a gorgeous vase will itself to keep from shattering as it falls floorward.
Allen has been cruel to many other of his characters, most memorably in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and he’s also left many other characters as prisoners of their own stasis and delusions—The Purple Rose of Cairo and Vicky Cristina Barcelona come to mind. But I’m not sure any of those other characters were quite as fully realized as Jasmine, which is naturally tribute to Allen and Blanchett and their alchemy together, but it also made the film, for me, hard to take. (A minority opinion given the reviews I’ve read.) I saw sadism in it, beyond the usual misanthropy. (Love misanthropy!) Or, put another way, Blue Jasmine feels like tragedy without catharsis—an interesting thing to pull off, but not particularly moving or maybe even admirable.
Theresa Montierro Film Review
Theresa Montierro Film Review: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine Is