In Woody Allen’s latest from the production line, Blue Jasmine, he ponders the question: What if you refused to believe your privileges had been stripped away from you? It’s a playful and unsurprising concept for the 78 year old director. Yet, as the typically amusing wit and neurotic awkwardness plays out, he soon reveals a fascinatingly complex and dark undertone within his leading character, comparable to his more recently mature and thoughtful works, such as Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) was the ultimate New York socialite. Her marriage to Harold (Alec Baldwin), a well off businessman, allowed her access to anything she could ever dream of. However, once Harold’s fraudulent dealings send him to prison, a penniless Jasmine has no choice but to fly to San Francisco and live with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). A clash in personalities ensues and Jasmine’s mental state begins to deteriorate once the events leading up to her downfall are slowly unveiled through a series of flashbacks. Despite trying to fit into new surroundings, her constant drinking, lying and repetitive monologues – either to herself or anybody that seems willing to listening – unveils an unsettling delusion that she will one day return to her previous lifestyle.
The obvious influential nudge here is Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Blanche DuBois, Jasmine’s airs and graces create turmoil within the cramped surroundings of a bustling downtown apartment. It may seem a rather blatant attempt at reworking a timeless touchstone at first glance, butAllen has always been known for handling his influences with respect. Like previous works with a clear secondary authoritative presence (Federico Fellini in Stardust Memories or Ingmar Bergman in Interiors), Allen does not offer a straight-up re-working of his heroes’ works, but rather an honourable understanding of their attitudes and habits by incorporating them within his own mindset. Unfortunately, taking Williams’s narrative template as inspiration is where the film falters. Beginning as a well written comedy of manners, the script becomes too tonally confused once Jasmine’s downfall brings in a much darker and troubling tension. What could have been a thoughtfully modernised and scathing satire on how the 1% live is lost through clumsy transitions between comedy and drama. Any satirical ideas or opinions that are supposed to be read from the story just come off as merely unsubstantial.
Despite this, Allen has mirrored Williams’s complex portrayal of women remarkably well. Although his ability to write distinctive and varied female characters has been a consistent attribute throughout his career, in having Williams in mind, Allen has created one of his greatest characters with Jasmine. Picking up a fiery temper and shattered nerves from her plummet down the social ladder, Jasmine’s emotional instability from her nervous breakdown is too challenging to simply categorise. With smudged eyeliner and a Chanel jacket clinging to her like a relic from yesteryear, Blanchett’s astonishing portrayal of Jasmine is exhausting in its complexity, effortlessly becoming the centre of the film. Unsympathetic in the sense that she convinces herself that she deserves better, but doesn’t necessarily merit it (a regular feature within many of Allen’s works), it’s difficult to completely dislike her as the emotional scars she inflicted upon herself displays an unrelenting self delusion and mental fragility.
Though what makes Jasmine’s imposing character accessible is down to Sally Hawkins’s impressive performance as her reluctant sister, Ginger. Both completely different personalities, Ginger has a relatable naiveté which plays well against Jasmine’s aristocratic ego. Her likeability completely exposes Jasmine’s phoniness as we learn more about this breakdown of hers. Every slug of vodka and popped pill can only encourage her neurosis. In a humorous scene where she liquid lunches with her two young nephews, her usual tired monologue spirals into a tense self awareness of her mental situation. One moment, smiling; the next moment, exhausted and grimacing at finally confronting the situation in her head. No matter how hard Jasmine tries to return to her life of privilege, her harsh decline from wealth will always leave her on the brink of complete mental destruction.
It’s certainly a big gap between first class and a park bench, and Allen has made one of his most daring films in showing it. Although his enthusiasts may pass it off too easily, the decision in casting Blanchett and totally stripping away her defining past of playing staunch and wise characters (she has played the Queen of both England and the Elves), transforming her into somebody that’s struck rock-bottom, is nothing but a stroke of genius. She really is that good.
DVD/BD Release Date:
17th February 2014 (UK)
Warner Bros Home Entetainment (UK)
Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard , Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale
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