Woody Allen’s latest, Blue Jasmine, ranks right at the top among his films over the last ten years. To be sure, given the apparent decline in his filmmaking skills, that’s not all that noteworthy. What is remarkable here is the performance he coaxes from Cate Blanchett, perhaps the finest of her career, as a woman leveled by fortune and her own character flaws. It is instructive that Allen succeeds here by the construction of finely drawn details of storytelling and character development. Blue Jasmine is smaller in scale than, say, Midnight in Paris or Vicky Cristina Barcelona (to cite two of his moderately well-done recent films), less overtly philosophical than the disappointing You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or Match Point, and void of the snide left-wing ideology of the tedious Whatever Works. By contrast, Blue Jasmine is a compelling character study of a soul desperately in need of, and in flight from, self-knowledge.
As is common in Allen’s films, the focus is on female siblings: Jasmine (Blanchett), who has led the life of a sophisticated New York socialite, and Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a more affable but not as bright or successful divorced mother of two young boys. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that they were both adopted, and from separate birth parents. They are both victims of Jasmine’s husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Wall Street tycoon whose fraudulent business deals cost Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), their life fortune, the result of lottery winnings, which Hal persuaded them to invest in one of his ventures. The question of how aware Jasmine was or should have been of her husband’s criminal activities is a source of tension between the sisters and especially between Jasmine and the men in Ginger’s life — first Augie, and then Ginger’s new boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a crude and brash mechanic. Hal’s deceptions and infidelities have cost Jasmine everything. Exposed and arrested, Hal committed suicide in prison; Jasmine is now alienated from her adult son, and she has lost her life of status and privilege.
Bereft of home and family, she decides to stay with Ginger in San Francisco. She brings with her from New York the remnants of her designer wardrobe and a desperate desire to cling to the dignified life she has lost. Despite the conflict over their lost fortune and Jasmine’s continued air of superiority, Ginger tries her best to be hospitable. Neither Augie nor Chili is as inclined to sympathize with Jasmine’s plight. In nearly every one of their meetings, Chili attempts, with a mixture of easy banter and sarcastic mockery, to put Jasmine under a microscope. These scenes often start out lightly humorous and then veer toward black comedy. But in each case the encounter reveals a vulnerability and a desperation in Jasmine that render her character more complex and sympathetic.
The obstacles to Jasmine’s recovery from familial and financial catastrophe are daunting. She has never accomplished anything on her own, except to look attractive and give the impression of affluent sophistication. She once had ambitions to be a designer and now sets herself the task of getting an education to become an interior decorator. She works in a menial job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office and takes online classes with an eye toward completing a program in interior design. Her inability to master the computer is a frustration, as are simple tasks like scheduling appointments for dental patients. But she works hard and makes progress even as she tries to fend off the lecherous advances of her boss. Her effort and her predicament gradually increase the sympathy we feel for her.
Her anxiety, never calmed by the regular doses of pills and alcohol she ingests, peaks in scenes in which she loses contact with her surroundings and starts talking manically to herself. Allen explores the roots of her psychic vertigo through deft use of flashback scenes to her New York life. These are presented in short sequences scattered throughout the film; usually, the flashback is prompted by an event or bit of dialogue in the present that reminds Jasmine of her past. The sequences also serve to frame a crucial question concerning the degree to which Jasmine is implicated in her own catastrophic downfall — the extent to which she was not just a victim of, but also an accomplice in, her husband’s deceptions. Can she work herself back to a state of societal grace? More fundamentally, can she alter deeply ingrained habits of behaving and of responding to others? Can she face squarely who she is and has been? Will her character progress or is she doomed to tragic repetition?
That last question surfaces with dramatic intensity when Jasmine attracts the attention of a handsome, wealthy single man looking for a wife who can complement and support his political ambitions. They seem a perfect fit, and the romance moves rapidly toward the prospect of marriage. All the while, viewers are aware that the new man is doing exactly what Hal did to Jasmine, namely, “sweeping her off her feet.”
Meanwhile, in a parallel plot line, Ginger meets a man who seems to be everything Chili is not. As good fortune seems to shine on both sisters simultaneously, viewers suspect that things are too good to be true. And they are. Yet the resolutions of their romantic quests are neither the same nor predictable.
Ginger’s tale, captivating in its own right, serves to highlight the question of Jasmine’s fate, as a damaged soul at once seeking and fleeing self-knowledge. To move forward, she needs to avoid repeating past mistakes. That requires a greater awareness of her past, and indeed of her self, than she has ever had the courage to cultivate. Pursuing this awareness now leads her to a knowledge of her past that threatens to shatter her life in the present. A number of times in the film she is seen talking to herself, sometimes like the unhinged homeless persons one encounters with some regularity on the streets of America’s big cities. Just as Blanchett must portray a wide range of emotions, so too does the potential fate of the character she is playing embody a wide spectrum of ultimate possibilities, from revived social standing with a renewed sense of dignity to psychological dissolution.
The performances are fine across the board. Besides Blanchett, Andrew Dice Clay as Augie, Sally Hawkins as Ginger, and Bobby Cannavale as Chili are all quite compelling. Meanwhile, Alec Baldwin has no trouble playing a charismatic adulterer, callously indifferent to his family. Cannavale manages to embody a wide range of traits and passions, from his penchant for bullying and crude conversation to surprising vulnerability when he begins to realize that he could lose Ginger.
Nuanced complexity of character is increasingly rare in today’s films, and it has been sadly absent from Allen’s recent work. Blue Jasmine is a welcome exception.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.