Without Luck & Money: Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’

Sudarshan Ramani

Blue Jasmine (2013)

In Woody Allen’s recent post-Match Point cycle, there is very little of the deliberate affectations of European cinema that is a feature of his 70s and 80s films. Films like Manhattan, Interiors, Annie Hall, and Stardust Memories wore its influences proudly and discussed them openly, which left Allen open to charges of being a mere imitator of Bergman, Fellini and the New Wave. It’s a terrific irony that now that he’s making films that are unmistakably his own, audiences use his great early films to put down his more original contemporary films. What makes movies like Match Point, Cassandra’s Dreams, You’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Midnight in Paris, Whatever Works and (I’d argue) To Rome With Love, amazing is its very casual mastery. The simplicity in plot and general theme, luck in Match Point for instance, allows wide scope for digression and multiple shifts in tone. Where Hannah and Her Sisters allowed for a Duck Soup inspired revelation as a safety hatch for conflict resolution, You’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger dispenses with that altogether. It’s also an ensemble film about relationships and romantic disappointment but it’s more punishing and painful in its observations and it deliberately leaves its characters suspended at the end, resting at a stopping point more than a clear ending. This lyricism achieved its apex with Midnight in Paris, his happiest film in thirty years. The non-narrative opening of Paris life accompanied to Sidney Bechet is an incredible tour-de-force, achieving a kind of rapture that has little to compare it to. To Rome With Love mines repeated material and invocations of 60s Italian cinema but with enough freshness for it to feel new and fresh, especially in the Alec Baldwin-Jesse Eisenberg segment, both of whom are separate characters as well as their respective older/younger counterparts at the same time.

The ironies aren’t merely verbal or literal, they are also visual. Indeed in terms of mise-en-scene, Allen’s films recent films are among his most inventive. Cassandra’s Dream’s central moment involves a conversation between Tom Wilkinson’s evil uncle deputizing his two lower middle-class nephews into his scheme. Just when he’s letting them into a secret, he takes over, stage whisper style, to the shadow of a tree and the camera circles them through its branches. In a single extended take, the film shifts in style from middle-class fraternal drama to the gothic world of melodrama, with thunder and rain as accompaniment and Tom Wilkinson slowly incarnating Mephistopheles as he growls, “Family is family, and blood is blood”. This abrupt shift in register and mood is the central feature of Allen’s recent films. His ability to inflect a single backwards glance with years of longing and pain, as in You’ll Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, where the camera follows Anthony Hopkins long backwards gaze at his young wife dancing in a nightclub, with the pitiless self-awareness that’s been eluding him coming to him in a rush.

This lyricism and shift in tone continues in Blue Jasmine, a film which on close observation combines Woody Allen’s comic and serious strains, his Groucho Marx and Arthur Miller sides. In the early parts of the film, when Jasmine is crying for a “Stoli martini with a lemon twist” she wouldn’t be out of place in My Man Godfrey, a Carole Lombard comedy about a wealthy heiress who is innocently offensive to the plight of the poor during the Depression. Indeed what is remarkable is how deftly Allen and Cate Blanchett shift tones from that register to the O’Neill/Miller/Williams extreme.

Some aspects of the film’s plot and Cate Blanchett’s powerful performance has drawn comparisons with A Streetcar Named Desire with the plot of a déclassé snob imposing her class values on her sister but the structure of the film, in terms of the segues between past and present has more in common with Death of a Salesmen. Jasmine is a character who perceives her surroundings and relatives as supporting characters to her story with herself as the heroine around which everyone orbits. Her character is essentially comical and ridiculous, lacking the rich sense of self and genuine refinement which makes Blanche DuBois an affecting tragic figure. Much like Scorsese and DiCaprio did in The Wolf of Wall Street, Allen and Blanchett approach Jasmine on her own, difficult terms. The film explores Jasmine in a series of flashbacks that are suffused with the air of the sinister, a gradual unearthing of the truth buried in delusion and bad faith.

The subject of Jasmine is money and what it does to people. Its real predecessor to Blue Jasmine is Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, also set in San Francisco and featuring a creepy dentist (Gibson Gowland in the original, Michael Stuhlbarg here, albeit a brief cameo). In Stroheim’s film, unexpected earnings in the lottery destroy a working class couple and drive all its characters into various states of insanity. The sour point between Jasmine and her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is the fact that she and her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) coaxed her and her first husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest their lottery earnings in Hal’s brokerage firm, only for that to collapse when Hal gets exposed as a Madoff-esque fraud during the financial crisis. The result of that setback is the end of both sisters marriages though Jasmine, déclassé and suddenly impoverished loses her entire lifestyle and a great deal of her sanity.

A lot has been noted of the film’s anachronistic sense of detail, the fact that Jasmine in the age of smartphones and tablets has to take a computer class to be a receptionist, but this sense of disconnect with reality anchors the film in its exploration of the character’s subjectivity. It’s especially apparent when the film cuts between the present and the flashbacks. The landscape of San Francisco (where most of the film is shot in) is very distinct but the film shows its most generic features, so when it cuts between New York (Past) and the present it’s not always clear. The film occasionally steps outside the confines of Jasmine into asides on other characters, all of whom are ably played by a terrific cast.

Sally Hawkins’ Ginger in many ways is more of a hero than Jasmine, being a divorced single mother who is compassionate and free of justified grudge-bearing. Andrew Dice Clay is especially poignant and compelling as the voice of the average 99%. Alec Baldwin projects an impressive coldness and restraint in his shady financier as a man who doesn’t seem to take real pleasure in his power and privilege except in the fact that he can exercise it. The venom hidden in his glib likability and poise makes him far more sinister than Alan Alda’s more buffoonish embodiment of corporate greed in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The idea of all of Woody Allen’s films is what Percy Shelley expressed as The Triumph of Life. Time, exhaustion and disappointment ages every great shining philosophy, ideology and erodes all sense of possibility and achievement. Jasmine lives in dread of this withering of self and in the personal way she experiences humiliation and her self-inflicted isolation, Allen finds a kindred spirit and a clear expression of existence in all its awful reality.

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