Written and directed by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson. Photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe. Edited by Alisa Lepselter. Production designed by Santo Loquasto. Starring Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is about people living lies, and instead of each character getting one big one, they divvy up about half a dozen small lies per person. Certainly this is true of Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett); one of the first things we learn about her is that Jasmine isn’t her real name, it’s Jeanette. She flies from New York to San Francisco after her opulent Park Avenue lifestyle falls into ruins, and she spends the entire trip yammering to herself and eventually to a nice old woman who ran the misfortune of asking her a question. Listen carefully to the tone of Jasmine’s clipped, prim opening monologue and you’ll hear it to uncannily share the same tone that one would have while telling a story about vacationing in the Hamptons.
Indeed, she used to do such things all the time, but now life has ripped the rug out from under her. Her husband Harold (Alec Baldwin) was indicted for being the ringleader of a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, and the resulting whirlwind has left her destitute and applying for the sympathy of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), staying at her San Francisco apartment while trying to rebuild her life. Staying, not “crashing.” Jasmine has already crashed once, and she is loathe to do it again. Within moments after arriving at her sister’s home, she begins wrinkling her nose with disdain. When she tells the story of her flight, Ginger meekly pokes a hole in her logic: “You said you were broke. How did you afford first class?” Jasmine literally doesn’t understand the question. When Ginger notices her sister’s matching Louis Vutton luggage, it’s explained away with a cheap excuse. The implication is clear: Jasmine may be down and out, but she will not do things that are beneath her.
Unfortunately, everything is beneath her, and that’s what’s causing her to go mad. She’s a one percenter who was raised to treat her lessers with scorn, and that attitude didn’t escape her own adopted sister. We see the two of them interact in flashbacks before the fall; Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) stay for one week in New York and Jasmine does not nothing but complain behind their back, even with them sleeping at a nearby hotel. (Notice the subtext of unspoken class rules that coil under the line “The Hilton’s very nice. Please ask them to forward us the bill. After all, you’re our guests.”) Jasmine’s now stuck in environs that she feels are robbing her of her dignity and power, and she’s someone who was born without a trace of humility. That needling is personified by Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Ginger’s boyfriend, who is such a font of Italian working class pride and anger that he seems to her like an alien. The echo here of A Streetcar Named Desire is deliberate.
To live with Jasmine is to walk on eggshells. There’s an open question regarding how much Jasmine knew about her husband’s financial schemes (this is especially pertinent to Augie, as being jointly cajoled by Harold and Jasmine into investing led them to ruin). She has a habit of looking the other way as long as she’s pampered and happy, and what that says about her marriage is addressed. Her nerves are shattered, and her prospects are bleak. She tries to take a class to learn how to use computers, and ends up paying her way by working as a receptionist for a lascivious dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg). She clashes with Chili constantly, and rebuffs his attempt to get her phone number for a friend with the utmost contempt. She pops Xanax with abandon, had a nervous breakdown once and is in danger of another. But it’s not because of simple stress; it’s because her life has turned inside out, and become founded on generosity and handouts. She sees the working class as leeches, and hates them for essentially making her one of them.
Jasmine isn’t just anger, she’s poison. She has no filter between her brain and her mouth, and she’s superficial to the core. She offers not a shred of sympathy for the many that were hurt by her husband’s financial trickery, and she treats her sister’s generosity like a third-world country that she needs to escape from. She finds temporary, shallow happiness with a rich yuppie (Peter Sarsgard), but bungles her way into it only by lying. She urges her sister to trade up from rough-around-the-edges Chili , and when Ginger takes her advice…well, see for yourself. This is a woman who in her pretensions, coldness and fragility intentionally mirrors Blanche DuBuois, but Blanche was never someone who hurt people (well, maybe poor Mitch), and Jasmine does nothing but. She’s partially to blame for so much pain that has happened to those around her, and yet she can’t stop thinking about herself. Her mere presence in Ginger’s flat puts a deadly hold on Chili’s plans, and then things get only much worse for all, because Jasmine is…Jasmine.
Blue Jasmine is, in essence, a story about bad choices. That’s complemented in the acting of Cate Blanchett, who makes nothing but perfect choices. Jasmine is a creature made out of lies and self-absorption. Her downfall was to buy into a lifestyle where no one is allowed to truly be themselves, and now with her income destroyed she literally has no idea who—or what—to be. Watch the way, for example an unmistakable accent gradually emerges from the murk of her mind. Blanchett has always been an actress who can be cold and affected, and Jasmine is the quintessential Blanchett performance. She has such a practiced, regal composure that it’s all the more potent when she becomes unhinged. The scene in a dingy diner where Jasmine babysits Ginger’s two kids and lays down her idea of common sense is a self-contained little masterstroke. Chances are there will not be a better female performance in a motion picture this year.
This is one of Woody Allen’s sourest movies, and one of his angriest. Granted, the anger exists through implication rather than speechmaking, but I sense much outrage. His films have sometimes been about awful people (Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point for starters), but those people are terrible specimens that there are laws for. Allen shies away from caricature; he clearly cares about his heroine—he is too generous and humanistic a writer not to. But he does use her as a torpedo to strike at greed, hypocricy and snobbery. When Jasmine rails against her sister to try to improve her station in life, despite never having worked a day in her own and looking for a quick-fix rich husband herself, we are asked to draw our own conclusions about the logical and moral disconnect. Allen is a very rich man. He deserves to be. But it’s clear that he hates anyone who would wreck other people’s lives, however accidentally, simply because they don’t know the difference between wealth and worth.
What Allen and Blanchett have done in Blue Jasmine is create a character study of someone who would be absolutely reprehensible, if she weren’t so recognizably pitiable. The film’s structure (alternating flashbacks and present-day scenes) is deceptive in its effect: we think the early scenes are sprinkled in to provide context, but in actuality they are designed to withhold key pieces of information until the very end, especially involving Jasmine’s son (Charlie Tahan) and his complex thoughts on what happened. She has a porcelain soul, this Jasmine Francis: pretty, cold, hollow, breakable. By the film’s conclusion, we discover that we have had quite enough of Jasmine…and are disquieted to learn that perhaps maybe Jasmine has also had quite enough of herself.