David Stratton rates Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
THERE was a time when every Woody Allen movie was set in New York. Manhattan (1979) is one of the most poignant love letters ever dedicated to the city Allen loves so much — you had the impression that his creative juices needed that Big Apple adrenalin, and when he shot scenes in Los Angeles (as he did in Annie Hall, 1977), they contained a New Yorker’s disdain for the perceived shallowness and lack of culture in the home of Hollywood.
Recently he’s been prised away from his beloved New York and — with financial support from European government funding bodies — has made films in London, Paris, Rome and Barcelona, with generally mixed results. Midnight in Paris (2011) was a success with most critics and with audiences, but To Rome with Love (2012) was a significant disappointment, suggesting that one of the finest American filmmakers of his generation was losing his touch.
Blue Jasmine is a triumphant return to form, and also a return to Allen’s cinematic beginnings. Play It Again, Sam (1972), which he scripted from his own play and which Herbert Ross directed, and his first feature as writer-director, Take the Money and Run (1969), were both set in San Francisco and the new film also takes place there, with flashback scenes set in New York.
Blue Jasmine isn’t a comedy, although there are some amusing moments. Much has been said and written about the plot’s similarities to Tennessee Williams’s celebrated play A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Cate Blanchett was a memorable Blanche DuBois in the recent Sydney Theatre Company production, which was presented in New York for a limited run. I should hasten to point out this is not a case of stealing from Williams, any more than Match Point (2005) stole from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, though in both cases there are some similarities. There seems little doubt that Allen was inspired to give the prodigiously talented Blanchett the opportunity to play a character somewhat similar to that of Blanche without simply making another film of the play.
We meet Jasmine as she flies first-class across America, talking nineteen to the dozen to the stranger sitting next to her (Joy Carlin). Her birth name is Jeanette, but she prefers Jasmine because it sounds more distinguished. And she’s flying first-class, even though she’s completely broke, because that’s the way she became used to doing everything when she was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), an apparently wealthy businessman who gave her everything she wanted: an apartment in Manhattan, a weekender in the Hamptons by the sea, jewellery, comfort, entry into the New York social set.
We see her life with Hal in flashbacks that are inserted from time to time during the film. It was a life of privilege, a pampered, lazy, unproductive life, and Jasmine had wholeheartedly embraced it while turning a blind eye to what all her friends seem to have known: that Hal was chronically unfaithful. Not only that, but his business deals were shady to say the least. He even conned Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who made a rare visit to New York with her husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) after a $200,000 lottery win, out of her winnings.
It’s during Ginger and Augie’s visit that we realise what a snob Jasmine is; she despises Augie — a big-hearted, generous man — for his working-class origins, she’s annoyed they’ve come to visit because they threaten to disrupt her social schedule, and she won’t have them stay in the apartment (Hal pays for their hotel room).
Despite her attitude towards her sister, it’s to Ginger that Jasmine turns in this time of emergency. Her marriage is over, her life of luxury has ended abruptly, she’s broke (making that first-class ticket just one more stupid indulgence). They’re not really sisters; both were adopted and came from different birth mothers, so they have almost nothing in common. Ginger is far more down-to-earth and practical; her marriage to Augie ended after they lost all their money, and she lives with her two sons in a somewhat shabby apartment. Jasmine can hardly conceal her disdain for Ginger’s lifestyle or her disapproval of Chili (Bobby Cannavale), the good-natured but definitely lower-class guy she’s dating. Chili is upset by Jasmine’s arrival because her presence is delaying the day when he moves into Ginger’s apartment — the two loathe one another at first sight.
You can see here the links to Streetcar: the sisters, the loss of a former lifestyle of wealth and position, the Stanley Kowalski-like character of Chili. There are other links, too, when Jasmine meets a new man — dapper Peter Sarsgaard — and thinks her troubles may be over. In the meantime, though, she needs work and — in desperation — takes a position as receptionist to a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) who can’t keep his mind on his patients.
Like Streetcar, Blue Jasmine is essentially the study of a delusional woman who makes all the wrong choices in life. Blanchett doesn’t simply portray Jasmine, she inhabits the role and makes it entirely her own. Allen has often written and directed great roles for actresses, and this is yet another; Oscar speculation is already rife and it would be surprising if Blanchett were not nominated for best actress. Nor would it be surprising if British actress Sally Hawkins received a best supporting actress nod for her stellar performance as Ginger. It’s interesting that these two nonAmericans are so utterly convincing playing American characters.
There are impressive performances among the male actors as well. Making his third film with Allen, Baldwin is convincingly sleazy as the womanising, corrupt wheeler-dealer. Comedians Dice Clay, as the good-hearted Augie, and Louis CK, as a man attracted to Ginger, also give strong dramatic performances, and Cannavale makes Chili surprisingly sympathetic.
Blue Jasmine is also notable for its look. It marks only the third time in his long career that Allen has used the Scope ratio (he used it for the black-and-white world of Manhattan and for one of his worst films, Anything Else, in 2003) and the widescreen ratio gives the film a spaciousness that benefits the interiors of the apartments Jasmine inhabits, from New York luxury to San Francisco drabness — the design of Allen regular Santo Loquasto is consistently impressive.
As poor Jasmine continues on a path of selfdestruction lubricated by too much alcohol and intake of Xanax, talking to anyone who will listen and to herself if there’s no one else around, there’s further confirmation that Allen, at his best, is a master observer of the human condition.
There are a few bleakly amusing moments in the film — the preview audience found it funnier than I did, perhaps because it was a Woody Allen film — but by the end the overall impression is of a tragedy of a foolish woman. Jasmine isn’t a bad woman, but she has a number of very dubious characteristics — her snobbishness for one; still, she doesn’t deserve the cards that fate has dealt her, and Allen and Blanchett succeed triumphantly in making you care for her, despite her considerable flaws.
Cate Blanchett as pampered socialite Jasmine in above; and, top, with Alec Baldwin as her shady, scheming husband, Hal