Reelings #7: Blue Jasmine
Spoiler Alert: This review will give away what happens in the film, and also this film might spoil your lunch.
All of us have fallen from grace. Luckily for most of us, it hasn’t been captured on film. The leading lady of Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest depiction of human unworthiness, doesn’t get off so easy. Instead of off the hook, this is a portrait of a woman skewered and dangling from the tip.
Jasmine French, the pathetic, effete, self-absorbed, crazy and fragile protagonist, played by Cate Blanchett in one of her best roles to date, is a former upper-crust-east-side wife of Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Madoff-modeled crook. Together they have swindled money from many, including Jasmine’s adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Upon learning of Hal’s affairs and plans to run away with a teenage French au pair, Jasmine does the almost unthinkable (considering her involvement): she calls the FBI.
Once the call is made, she realizes you can’t really take a phone call to the FBI back. She’s turned Hal and her money in over an affair, revealing her fragile sense of self and desperate need to be partnered. The scene where she confronts Hal about his affair with au pair, she is portrayed in classic Woody Allen “hysteria” but really she’s only responding naturally to a horrific scenario. My friend Larry pointed out that while watching this scene he couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t more or less the exact exchange between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow when he told her he was leaving her for her daughter.
Without her “society” and money and homes (plural), all Jasmine has left is a few Chanel dresses to get her by. She suffers a breakdown that doesn’t stop breaking, and though she’s penniless, she books a first-class flight, arriving completely destitute at the doorstep of her adopted sister Ginger who lives in San Francisco. Ginger, played with affectionate normality by Hawkins, lives in a modest apartment on South Van Ness Avenue, that Jasmine calls homey, by which she means horrific. Populating Ginger’s San Francisco life are her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice CLAY people!) and her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Both men have thick Jersey accents and work as grease monkeys, and you have to wonder if Allen ever bothered to leave his hotel and see what San Francisco is like, or rather defer to someone who could help him get it right. Ten years I’ve lived in San Francisco, and I couldn’t find a Jersey mechanic if it was the $100 clue on a scavenger hunt. But he’s probably not interested in getting place right. In fact aren’t all of his movies New York set in somewhere he feels like traveling to?
Back to Jasmine: vodka is drinking her, she’s using Xanax to toe the line, and is often found talking to herself. Because who is she now that she is not a wife and a person whose entire aim in life is to shop? She doesn’t know, but gets the idea, based on her great taste in clothes, that she might be destined to be an interior designer. She takes computer classes (in 2013 that’s quite a statement about her level of entitlement or Allen’s out-of-itness) and has to take a job (heavens no!) as a receptionist in a dentist’s office to get by.
Jasmine is pathetic and loathsome; she has no remorse for anything she’s done or for the way she has judged her sister’s lifestyle. But, and this is almost wholly due to Blanchett’s acting abilities, she’s also likeable and easy to empathize with. After all it’s hard not to have empathy for a woman who is so unmoored and suffering from both alcoholism and mental illness. She has lived a life of dependence and now is standing on the corner talking to herself. But what’s the statement here? She’s the one who turned them in over a romantic affair. Is the point that without money or a man a woman becomes insane and turns to the sauce?
And more importantly why this subject matter? Why is Allen choosing to make a movie about this particular character? Is it to support a modern fable of our economic fall from grace? Or is there something more insidious at play?
Every ten minutes I experienced a wave of illness at the presupposition of the film’s position: that the world view begins as a central-park apartment rise, and that anything outside or beyond that is a step down. Allen’s depiction of lower and upper class people in his films, and this one in particular, are so downright condescending that one has to wonder if he meant to be satirical. Ginger, Jasmine’s sister, works in grocery store, dates “losers” and wears her hair in a most unfashionable style. Jasmine on the other hand is all hermes. Is there nothing in between?
Despite the odds against her, Jasmine’s sister Ginger, the modest checkout girl, is the only one who seems to have an appropriate amount of happiness. She’s seen throughout the film laughing, dancing and hosting game nights. She has children. She understands the compromise needed in realistic human relationships. Sure her boyfriend may be a hard-drinking grease monkey but they have this crazy thing called love. A concept lost on poor Jazzy.
The film’s title comes from the fact that when Jasmine met Hal “Blue Moon” was playing:
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own
That’s what’s missing: Jasmine doesn’t seem to know what love is or have any experience of it. Like she says, that she knows the tune but can’t ever remember the words. No one is on her side. The only man who potentially cares for Jasmine is an aspiring politician played by Peter Saarsgaard, and it seems he wants to marry her for her appropriate politician’s wife’s looks and perhaps because she will allow him to be gay. Unfortunately, without anyone to love her, Jasmine is wide open to the torturous turns that Allen takes with her character.
To watch Blue Jasmine was a test of nausea’s limits. Throughout the film I felt compelled to both root for Jasmine and simultaneously anticipate her going further and further into the abyss. How confusing to loathe and love someone who seems both a victim and a perpetrator; it’s simultaneously what’s interesting and horrifying about the film. To watch Blue Jasmine is to watch Blanchett rise up and out of the mediocrity of the film and to carry her own torch among an otherwise dimly lit journey, only to have her character be quickly and repeatedly taken down. It’s almost as if Blanchett suffers Allen’s film, much in the same way as the Jasmine plays is tortured by the other male characters on screen.
Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian writes about the relationship between Jasmine and her brief time working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office, where the creepy mouth-doc (Michael Stuhlbar) makes a pass at her: “Stuhlbarg’s bespectacled dentist is arguably the quasi-Woody character in the cast, and his calamitous sexual lunge is very like one Woody tried in that other San Francisco-set movie Play It Again, Sam – though here resolved with a bitter, downbeat seriousness.”
Bradshaw’s right. This is Woody, lunging again at a woman, who isn’t interested in his advances. Sure, the doctor is hapless and a neurotic, but that seems merely a clever way to make misogyny seem innocent. In fact Allen’s self-effacing, aw-shucks shtick may in fact just be that: a shtick to distract us from the deeper subtext at play. Why so many movies “about women” that are merely thinly veiled vehicles for movies “about Woody”? How many movies can you make, where you lunge at women, drive them to the brink, take away their only comforts and watch them go mad? It seems now written in stone; after 46 movies, we can see that Woody’s career is nothing more than a lunge, at that creature that eludes him. It seems that Allen tries to understand himself through “the other” – but that his investigations of self are more easily done through women, so he avoids taking himself to task at all.
In truth, so many of Allen’s leading ladies are treated with something that borders on cruelty. Jasmine is stripped of everything, subjected to things that further deleterious circumstances, and eventually takes a job where she’s sexually assaulted. That’s what we’re going to give her? And for what? And to what end?
Blue Jasmine is a clear homage to (or rewrite of) A Streetcar Named Desire, that famous tale about a southern belle’s fall from grace. In that story it’s also a man’s cruelty that drives the leading lady to a nervous breakdown. Again confirming the idea that a woman without a man is just a plaything left defenseless to the cruelties and battery of the world around her.
Everyone has always told me how much I’d love Woody Allen’s films. As a budding young neurotic I was encouraged to watch Annie Hall, Manhattan, and then the rest of them. Since the beginning I’ve hated his films, but never been able to figure out why. There has always been, despite the occasional likeable humor, something that has bothered me long after the film ends.
I suppose I take issue with the tone of haughtiness, the feeling that as I walk to the subway, I’m being looked down upon from someone having a lox bagel on the balcony of their 5th avenue apartment. The feeling that women exist only as a figment and plaything of a man’s existential Freudian probing. Allen’s films are people-hating, self-hating things. And he’s not the only director, obviously. Let’s take Lars Von Trier as another kind of example of consistent misogyny, yet his works are more blatant, obvious, and extreme. But what I appreciate about Von Trier’s fraught vision is that his misogyny isn’t veiled; it’s exposed and honest. How can I respect, much less enjoy, Allen’s choices when he’s trying to trick me into laughing or catching a tune or looking at pictures of beautiful cities, when what he’s really saying is he’s going to make me watch a woman being hated and judged, usually for interfering with his creativity, or more subtextually, for aging.
So many people I respect and admire, critics and friends, love Allen’s films. While there are certain films of his I enjoy (or rather endure) more than others, they consistently repulse me. I’m not sure what I am missing, or what I am choosing to read in them. But this I know: I would never want to end up as any of the women characters in any of Allen’s films.
Perhaps I’m just tired of being lunged at.