Blanchett DuBois

Blue Jasmine
(USA, 98 min.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stulhbarg.
Cate Blanchett as Jasmine Photo by Merrick Morton
© 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Annie Hall. Martha. Norma Desmond. Margo Channing. Sophie Zawistowski. Blanche DuBois. The aforementioned women are some of the best female characters of stage and screen. Idiosyncratic or eccentric, scatterbrained or strong, these characters are some of the most consistently fascinating women for actors and audiences alike. They demand repeat performances and viewings since they’re such multilayered characters. Substantial yet flawed, the backstories of these characters make them profoundly human: audiences can relate to them since the actresses inhabiting these characters have so much material to work with in order to flesh out a dynamic, full-bodied character.

Add to the list of cinematic greats the latest character scripted by Mr. Woody Allen, Jasmine French, played with dynamic gusto by Cate Blanchett. Jasmine is one of the best characters to be written in years and Blanchett’s performance underlines every letter of dramatic depth scripted into her character. It’s arguably one of the most impressive performances since Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn as Aileen Wuornos ten years ago. Like the title character of Theron’s film, Blanchett’s Jasmine is a monster through and through. However, also like Aileen, Jasmine is a character with whom one can sympathize while finding many a good reason to abhor her.

If Jasmine evokes comparison to any of the classic characters mentioned above, though, many film buffs have drawn parallels to Blanche DuBois. Like Blanche, Jasmine has fallen on hard times as she enters the picture, nattering to herself and hitting the bottle to pacify her inner demons. Jasmine (which, one should note, is also the scent of Miss DuBois’s perfume) arrives in a foreign city to visit and/or take advantage of her younger sister. Jasmine’s sis, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, reuniting with Allen after Cassandra’s Dream), is very much the Stella to Jasmine’s Blanche. Prototypically common and working class—and not the least bit ashamed of it, Ginger is a polar opposite to her regal, refined, and uppity sister. (They’re both adopted, but it is said that Jasmine, née Jeannette, has the better genes.) Ginger is also engaged to a sweaty low class mechanic named Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who seems to suit Ginger just fine, but is dubbed another of Ginger’s “loser” boyfriends by Jasmine. (You’ll recall that Blanche and Stanley didn’t get along all that well, either.)
Photo by Merrick Morton
© 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Parallels to A Streetcar Named Desire, however, should hardly suggest that Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen on autopilot. Woody keeps cranking out pictures, but where he flip-flopped previously between hits and misses, Jasmine brings his batting average to two solid home runs in his past three films. Rather than offering a mere cut and paste job or update of the Tennessee Williams play, Allen uses Streetcar as an effective vehicle to draw out the contemporary resonance of his story. One need not necessarily be familiar with the real life figures that might have inspired the story in order to appreciate the film.

Blue Jasmine, like A Streetcar Named Desire, is a volatile dramatization of America in a state of change. The old ways are crumbling. Where the America of the Tennessee Williams play had more room for a gruff polish immigrant like Stanley Kowalski than it did for a posh Southern belle (re: floozy) like Blanche DuBois, Woody Allen’s dramedy shows that there is much more pride in being a working-class citizen in 2013, bagging groceries like Ginger, than there is in being a top-shelf trophy wife like Jasmine.

Jasmine lost everything when her husband, Hal, went to prison for some dirty business deals. Alec Baldwin, reuniting with Allen after Alice and last year’s To Rome with Love, plays Hal with spot-on sleaziness. Jasmine, like so many others, was taken in by Hal’s charm and failed to notice what a shady businessman he was. She also turned a blind eye to Hal’s philandering by never worrying about what a smooth operator he was so long as shopping at high-end boutiques between three martini lunches comprised her schedule. Boozed up on cocktails of anti-depressants and rounds of Stoli martinis made gratis with Ginger’s fine liquor—fans of Streetcar will recall that the boozy Blanche drank Stanley dry—Jasmine unravels as she revisits these memories while trying to pick herself up.

There’s a pleasure in judging Jasmine as Allen unfolds the story of his heroine’s breakdown and fall from social grace. Telling the story in a series of flashbacks dispersed throughout the present-day narrative, one sees that Jasmine’s downfall was a product of her own willful blindness. Looking the other way allows for a cozy existence for only so long. A veritable Queen of Versailles, Jasmine embodies everything that’s wrong with the upper class in America. She sees only what she wants to see, and she has no concept of the work it takes to make a living. Enjoying excess and extravagance at every turn in her former life, she has no idea that the wealth of few can come at the cost of many.

However, Allen and especially Blanchett construct the character so that one can’t help but see Jasmine as another of Hal’s victims. A complicit dupe, Jasmine’s self-worth is utterly shattered by Hal’s betrayal because her own self-worth is defined by how others see her. Allen and costume designer Suzy Benziger underscore Jasmine’s vanity by dressing her up in some of the chicest outfits and pieces of haute couture one has ever seen in an Allen film. Blanchett carries herself with regal poise and elegant composure, too, and relishes Jasmine’s full-on theatricality as she dresses the part of a successful woman when all evidence points to the contrary.

Knocked off the trophy shelf and cast into the gutter with Ginger, Jasmine’s psychological annihilation is surprisingly sympathetic. She’s obviously in need of serious help. Ginger acknowledges, but doesn’t fully appreciate, her sister’s psychological state. One particularly striking scene sees Jasmine at the centre of a well-intentioned conversation with Ginger, Chili, and Chili’s friend, Eddie (Max Casella). Jasmine goes on the defensive when asked what she would do with her life. She has no marketable skills or formal training, but she insists that going back to school will help her make something of herself. However, with no coherent strategy other than to order another drink, education and the prospect accepting blue-collar work are just more sources of anxiety for the tapped-out Jasmine.

Jasmine is a peculiar and dynamic character, and Blanchett commands every frame in which she appears. Especially when Jasmine’s neuroses reach their penultimate state of Woody Allen-ish frenzy does Blanchett marvel at conveying the tics whittling away at her wilting character. There’s a hint of fragile mania to Blanchett’s performance that hasn’t been seen in an Allen film since the best roles were enjoyed by Dianne Wiest. A highlight of the film, which comes towards the end, sees Jasmine take Ginger’s two sons for a play-date at Chuck E. Cheese, which seems like Jasmine’s idea of hell. Pairing a glass of chardonnay with a buffet of White Whine while the kids nibble crappy pizza, Jasmine hits her lowest point—and Blanchett her highest—as she drones on about losing everything and bottoming out. Not once does Blanchett overdo it as she chews the scenery in A-grade Acting. It’s the first genuinely award-calibre performance of the year and Blanchett’s best work since playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

A typically strong Allen ensemble surrounds Blanchett. Hawkins offers a turn full of heart and empathy as Ginger. She’s the character to whom many members of the audience can likely relate, but, like Blanchett, Hawkins doesn’t hide the faults of her character as she plays Ginger with a kind of happy-go-lucky naiveté. One feels bad for Ginger, though, when she gets the rug pulled out from under her during one unfortunate phone call, but it’s also the moment in which Ginger most resembles her sister for being blind to what is around her for the sake of social mobility. The men of the film, Baldwin, Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay, the latter two playing Ginger’s other flames (one a lover, the other her boorish ex-husband), are equally good in complementing Blanchett and Hawkins in some of the films’ most dramatic moments, but also in finding the rhythm of Allen’s comedic beat underlying the film.

Blue Jasmine, like many of Allen’s more sober works, is balanced with a fine funny bone to support the meaty bits of his social commentary. If Midnight in Paris is Allen’s best comedy since Hannah and Her Sisters, then Blue Jasmine is arguably Allen’s finest drama—and most substantial film—since Crimes and Misdemeanors. His scathing take on the upper crust of America is a smart and humorous look at the decay of America’s top-tier in the wake of the recent financial crisis. Allen isn’t afraid to let the audience dislike Jasmine for her complicity in bringing about the ruin of others; however, he’s smart enough to find the victim in the woman who was caught up in the thrills of easy living and high society. Allen made a similar indictment of class in 2005’s London-set Match Point, but this tale that cuts between swanky Manhattan and grungy San Francisco feels closer to home. Match Point, as good as it is, feels like an outsider’s musing on a deeply entrenched class-system. Blue Jasmine, meanwhile, feels topical and relevant. The threading of commentary onto a loose framework of A Streetcar Named Desire lets the tale feel timeless, too. Returning to America after a trip around the world, Allen has come back with something smart to say about his home country. It’s not as pretty as the tale of Midnight in Paris, but Blue Jasmine’s dynamic look at the fall of America’s wealthy marks one of the finest films of the Woodman’s career.

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Blue Jasmine is currently playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne.