Bearing Witness: A Review of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s 45th film as a director, is an unusually spirited blend of his steadfast themes.  Was he amused by Ruth Madoff’s declarations of innocence? Mindful of the ephemerality of the life he and others have worked, married or been born into on the Upper East Side of Manhattan?  Whatever it is that sent Allen to his trusty pen and paper and then on to set, the man cooks with gas here.  He creates an unnerving and unfortunately plausible protagonist in Jasmine, a “lady who lunches” now stripped of her money, power and status and forced to dry land, the land of the proletariat (literally via a first-class flight she can no longer afford but books anyway).

Blue Jasmine is the most impressive artifact of Woody Allen’s “Late Period” (outstandingly begun with Match Point and featuring Vicki Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris).   This of course followed his “Exhausted Period” embodied by the despondent Anything Else? and the leaden Curse of the Jade ScorpionJasmine proves perhaps the most seamless amalgam of the 21st century Allen’s obsessions.  Some quick bits seem companionable with sillier moments in recent congenial trifles like Scoop and To Rome, With Love.  Other scenes play out as orthodox drama in line with Match Point or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, while Allen’s use of a traditional tragic construction proves this time more involving if no less schematic than in Cassandra’s Dream.

I initially reacted to Jasmine herself (played by the redoubtable Cate Blanchett) as a cartoon and with something like bemused revulsion, enjoying watching her pathological self-interest brought to its knees. In the playful early sequences, she chatters endlessly to a tolerant but disinterested seatmate on her flight, and leans heavily and cluelessly on a helpful cab driver for help as she attempts to gain entrance into her sister's apartment (and new, lower-middle class life).  She lacks the “double consciousness” necessary to make this transition smooth; she lacks much consciousness at all, having lived not even on instinct but instead drunk on her wealth – with too much money and too much dotage, her only choices for years involving how to best use a given moment to luxuriate.  If, as Whitman said, one can “contain multitudes,” then Jasmine’s internal design is a multitude of simple variations on an extremely limited, narcissistic theme.

But.

This week a colleague at the college where I teach described his difficulties embracing the film, having found it very “sad,” and his discomfort with the material echoed a niggling feeling I experienced as Jasmine progressed.   An unexpected revelation towards the end that should, if anything, have made Jasmine even more a figure worthy of scorn and mockery, made me, yes, sad.

Robert Christgau once said Wish You Were Here was his favorite Pink Floyd album because it was Roger Waters’ tribute to the mentally disturbed Syd Barrett, noting Barrett was not my idea of a tragic hero but as long as he's Roger's that doesn't matter.Allen, from his protracted stay on the upper East Side of Manhattan, knows Jasmine and likely knows multiple Jasmines, women who if forced to take a subway twenty blocks south would be at a loss. If hardly supportive of Jasmine’s choices and behaviors, Allen perhaps understands how their happy, lucky existence, with identities heavily invested in their husbands, would leave them woefully lacking basic survival skills.  Jasmine sees herself as a victim, a woman done wrong by her husband, by the community who abandoned her, by the courts who persecuted her,  and finally even by those who take her in when she has nowhere to go, for they simply don’t understand her conviction that she belongs some better place.  What Allen sees that Jasmine does not is that she is indeed disconnected from the world of the day-to-day but also emotionally and psychically disconnected from herself and her immediate family, portrayed in expert flashbacks to broken, superficial relationships with both husband Hal and stepson Danny.

Allen startlingly exposes Jasmine's universe as a rather spooky, lonesome one, both in her current status as a leaky ship without a country and in these extensive flashbacks to a life of financial prosperity.  She cannot begin to comprehend the difficulties facing her sister-through-adoption, who lives day-to-day raising two boys as a grocery bagger; Jasmine is only disturbed that she will no longer browse the Spring collections or host fabulous parties.  What makes Blue Jasmine so potent is a week after viewing, I’m still insecure in my reaction to Jasmine’s ultimate fate.

In a world where the honorable Mayor Bloomberg browbeats the less-fortunate for not appreciating all that is grand about the city’s culture-divide, there is a certain unkind pleasure in seeing “one of them” stripped of pretensions and, yes, money.  Nevertheless Allen smartly dramatizes that even returned to earth she will be continually evaluated on the one currency she still possesses, her beauty, so that nearly every unattached man she meets responds favorably no matter her behavior, and then generally offers himself to her. This allows her to ultimately choose Dwight, an upwardly-mobile, wealthy State Department employee.  As Jasmine uses falsehood piled on untruth to maneuver into a relationship with him, we see both the worst and best of her.

Part of what creates empathy is who among us has not crashed like a drunk on a barroom floor, only to be given one more opportunity to rise, and to somehow foul that up as well?  Jasmine does know what it takes to captivate a man like this and she comes off quite healthy and calm when allowed back into her world for a brief sojourn.  Blanchett’s triumph is in making Jasmine both a foreign object and relatable, so that the climactic reveal and its aftermath prove both a just and despairing outcome.  My understanding of this problematic character increased as Allen, through Jasmine, touched on the fear many (all?) of us have of being “found out” a fraud of some sort.

For one not to the manor born, Allen seems to have unusual difficulty relating to the working class; despite the best efforts of Bobby Cannavale, Sally Watkins, and Andrew Dice Clay, the supporting workaday characters are only mildly plausible dramatic constructions; if anything they are too kind and muted throughout in their responses to her nasty behavior.  Allen also leans a bit too heavily on contrivance towards the end, with a supporting character reappearing in a clumsy manner to instigate both climactic conflict and provide necessary and unlikely expository information to set up an unrelated sequence.

Despite these and some of the usual flaws of latter-day Allen (bits of on-the-nose dialogue and characters behaving in unlikely ways in aide of the neat dramatic irony Allen favors), Blue Jasmine is his most absorbing film since Match Point and Jasmine his most wholly realized character since the unjustly forgotten Alice from his 1990 film of the same name.  To borrow a phrase from Pauline Kael, Blue Jasmine is a “macabre farce with a high polish.” You might wish to laugh at Jasmine and enjoy her just deserts as I did initially, but as it becomes all too clear that we are bearing witness to the last moments of a condemned woman, I found my reaction evolving.  Or do I mean maturing?  After all, it is better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring, and the lost Jasmine commands our attention even as those on screen turn away from her,leaving the viewer her only companion. Blue Jasmine is every inch a Woody Allen film and likely to be evaluated as one of his all-time greats when the dust settles, hopefully not for many years (and films) to come.

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