Produced by Perdido Productions
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Grim. That’s the first thing to say about Woody Allen’s new movie, Blue Jasmine. The second is that its lead, Cate Blanchett, gives one of the best performances by an actress since Vivian Leigh played Blanche DuBois in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Then again, one could say it’s the best performance since Miss Blanchett herself played Blanche on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009.
I should add that, as much as Williams’ Blanche depended on the kindness of strangers, so the success of this movie will depend on the kindness of Mr. Allen’s fan club, a loosely federated organization of which I count myself a member. Strangers to Allen’s work, on the other hand, may find the movie too dismayingly cold to enjoy. In Vanity Fair, of all places, Bruce Handy has called it Allen’s “cruelest film ever.” (One wonders what Mr. Handy thinks of Hamlet.) I agree that the film is chilly, but I think this a virtue rather than a fault. Allen has undertaken to dramatize the disintegration of a self—an unpleasant process to watch, certainly, but a necessary one, given our particular socioeconomic moment.
Mr. Allen’s strategy is to make us believe, at first, that Jasmine, a cosseted upper-class New Yorker on Roger Vivier heels, resembles Blanche, the Southern belle divested of her inheritance. Both ladies would seem to have had their golden identities stolen by circumstances beyond their control. As matters turn out, the truth is quite otherwise. Like Blanche, Jasmine hasn’t been deprived of her identity at all, which is unfortunate, since such larceny would have been a positive boon to her moral development. Instead, Jasmine grips the identity she has constructed for herself as tightly as she does her Birkin handbag, in which she carries vials of Xanax along with a pint or two of Stolichnaya vodka, the anodynes she steadily applies to salve the pain of having suddenly fallen from entitlement.
The narrative principally takes place in two locales. The first is a Park Avenue floor-through apartment softly suffused in the warm golden light of bottomless wealth; the second, a low-rent San Francisco four-roomer shown in stark, unforgiving daylight. The contrast crystallizes Jasmine’s story. Until recently, she had been married to Hal (Alec Baldwin, beefily convincing, as one of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe). Hal had marinated her in privilege, and she never complained. During her upscale tenure, her only contact with little people came through her duly advertised and thoroughly condescending support of socially approved charities. When her husband is exposed as a grand-scale investment cheat, however, she loses all her money and is forced to seek shelter with her sister, Ginger, a working-class woman who packs groceries at a local supermarket. Ginger attributes their class difference to the fact that, as adoptees, they had different parents. Jasmine got the better genes, Ginger remarks with a rueful smile.
Arriving in San Francisco, Jasmine stands on the sidewalk below her sister’s walk-up, making a cellphone call as her cab driver gathers her luggage. While he struggles with his task of lugging it upstairs, she looks forbiddingly over her shoulder and asks peremptorily, “Can you give me a little privacy?”
She doesn’t add You asshole, but it’s clearly what she’s thinking.
Once she’s in the apartment, she meets her sister’s sons, two obese kids racketing about the tiny rooms. Jasmine stands this for about three seconds. “Will you please go into the other room and be quiet?” she huffs with exasperation, running her hand soulfully across her careworn brow. Never mind that she hasn’t seen the boys in years. They are louts nurtured on McDonald’s who must be promptly and firmly put in their chubby place.
Allen’s observance of class difference has rarely been so sharp. Jasmine languidly stands about in her Chanel ensembles, her visage smoothed with La Mer cosmetics, while Ginger makes do with patterned cotton tops pulled over spandex jeans and a hastily applied smear of Walgreens lipstick.
Perhaps the funniest moment in this otherwise dour film comes when Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), fixes up a double date. Sitting at a table outside a dockside restaurant, Jasmine finds herself facing an undersized Italian laborer dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. She regards the fellow from over the top of her vodka glass as though he were a member of a different species. When later he asks to see her again, she looks as though she is having an attack of the vapors. Though she’s fond of telling all who will listen that she majored in anthropology at Boston University, she’s unwilling to give this tribal specimen a moment’s regard.
Jasmine’s upper-class pretensions founder on the discovery that, among his other malfeasances, Hal managed to lose the $200,000 in lottery winnings that Ginger and her former husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) entrusted to him. For Augie, the loss forecloses what had seemed his only chance for minor affluence. When Ginger, in a moment of sisterly pique, brings this up, Jasmine groans plaintively. Doesn’t Ginger realize that she graciously arranged for Hal to invest the money to improve their lives? She doesn’t say miserable lives, but she might as well. And doesn’t she further realize how much she herself has lost? Blanchett somehow convinces us that Jasmine actually believes this self-justifying twaddle.
Jasmine’s a phony, no way around it. Should we have any lingering doubts, Allen includes an episode in which she lies her way into a relationship with a wealthy diplomat, letting him believe she’s a highly regarded interior designer on no firmer basis than her taste in clothes. We can’t help wondering if she began her relationship with Hal on a similarly dishonest basis. While we’ve been led to believe that Hal misled her, it seems Jasmine herself is no slouch at manipulation. Even her name suggests this. In one scene at a dinner party in happier days, we listen to Hal telling everyone how he couldn’t resist a woman bearing such an enchanting name. But it’s not her name. Jasmine was christened Jeannette. Somewhere along the line, and with a good deal of calculation, she traded up to the more exotic Jasmine.
Far from being cruel, Allen’s film is a meditation on salubrious selfishness and the delusions it breeds. Jasmine never sees what’s coming until it’s too late because she’s so immersed in her privilege that she cannot believe she’ll ever lose it. You might think of her as America on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. Think of the millions caught unaware that the bubble would burst. They couldn’t believe it. How could they? Didn’t they deserve their wealth and comfort?
Clinging to her Birkin, Jasmine, like so many others, feels lost. Sad. Were she able to accept her loss, she might be able to find herself.
Is there any significance to Allen’s production company being named Perdido? One wonders. Will Allen go Buddhist in his next film, dramatizing the delight of losing all attachments?