December 9, 2013
This could be Blanchett doing Blanche
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is an emotional wreck in comedy tone
A demigod’s fall from grace makes for meaty subject for writers, storytellers, playwrights — for any artist with a penchant for theatricals and the classic grandeur of classic tragedies. Woody Allen’s latest foray Blue Jasmine is a brilliant example of this kind of periplus, a dangerous journey he turns into an enjoyable ride in spite of the film’s core theme.
SUBJECT. Jasmine, one of New York’s most sought after socialites, has until recently lived a glossy-magazine kind of perfect life: billions to spend on every imaginable luxury, a handsome husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin) who happens to be an incredibly rich stock market entrepreneur, and a college student kid who goes from loser to popular after daddy gives a lecture at an auditorium packed with undergraduates pathologically anxious to wring out the secret to financial success.
Behind his immaculate splendour, though, Hal has been running some sort of resurrected Ponzi scheme, taking away from the rich with the promise to make them even richer, and stealing from the poor like only a small-time crook would.
After the financial bubble bursts, Jasmine (her real name or one she has taken on purely for social purposes) finds herself naturally talking to herself on a plane bound for San Francisco, where her estranged sister Ginger lives in lower middle-class discomfort. But Blue Jasmine, starring the ever-mesmerizing Cate Blanchett as a rich, glamorous woman who brings financial disaster and emotional ruin upon herself, is not just a simple account of how ill-gotten riches and honours may distance down-to-earth folk away from reality. Blue Jasmine, impeccably written and choreographed by Mr. Allen, is a veritable tour de force thanks to the impressive performance of Ms. Blanchett and the ensemble cast.
Blue Jasmine, if you’ll pardon the comparison, heavily references and pays tribute to Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. There is, indeed, more than just one plotpoint or two in common between Blue Jasmine and Streecar... The summation of a similar sequence of events and the manner Mr. Allen retells an operatic mad scene as a seamless stream-of-consciousness style events that give the film an overall feeling of familiarity with the lead characters and their tribulations.
Jasmine, of course, is Allen’s answer to Williams’ deranged Blanche, much in the same manner that Jasmine’s sister Ginger (the cutesy Sally Hawkins, in a delightfully understated performance) mirrors the docile Stella, who strives to maintain the delicate balance at the Kowalski household. Stanley’s counterpart (Chili) is most adequately sketched as a caricature by Bobby Cannavale, a bundle of muscles who likes to play brute but weeps like a baby at the slightest instance of emotional wound. Finally, Williams’ Mitch, the sweet prince charming intended as Blanche’s last hope for freedom and happiness, becomes a handsome, endearing (and rich) entrepreneur ready to launch his political career by the side of a socially acceptable wife.
At first sight, this is as far as parallelism goes here, at least as regards characterization. If, artificially and conceitedly, the definition of “characterization” is extended to presentation and representation of events, then there’s a plethora of visual cues that point to Streetcar’s minimalist composition. Ginger’s modest lodgings, with a wooden partition between living room and bedroom, between half-concealed public truth and private shame, closely resembles the Kowalski’s humble home. The manner Jasmine comes a-knockin’ on her estranged sister’s home is another close reminder of how Williams handled the all-too-human need to conceal ignominy and pass it off as something pitiably resembling honour. But curtains and drapes are easily torn to pieces, and partitions brought down and broken into pieces when least expected.
THEME. The normative goes that this should be as brief and succinct as possible, which could be easily confused with a moral or truth to be learned from a story or event. Blue Jasmine’s theme cannot be easily condensed into one sentence or two. Its storyline could, but trying to define its theme would be reductionist, to say the least.
When somebody’s misfortune is structured as a morality tale, what you get is a biblical compendium of all the evils that fall upon unrepentant sinners. When a gifted storyteller like Mr. Allen tackles a story about sinful rise and deserved downfall, what you get is either a darkly prophetic tale like his own Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), or a sweetly melancholy meditation on the logic of human destiny, like Annie Hall (1977) or Manhattan (1979).
CONCLUSION. Although the similarities between Streetcar... and Blue Jasmine are not difficult to spot, this is not a nuisance, for Mr. Allen’s deft hand turns replica into moving tribute, staging Blue Jasmine as an original piece of work that invites reflection and reformulation of the same old preoccupations endured by humankind. The way Blue Jasmine’s story is punctuated and invisibly segued despite its jump-cut style of editing, you’d think there is no end to Mr. Allen’s wizardry, for he has chosen a comedic tone for what is rightly considered a cataclismic misfortune and turn of events.
His choice of female lead is further proof of his casting skill, for the wondrous Ms. Blanchett goes with amazing ease from ruthless, aloof detachment when she’s on top of the world, to false pretense and delusion of grandeur when her make-believe world of endless riches comes tumbling down. Think Gena Rowlands in John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what Ms. Blanchett is capable of achieving: nothing short of stunning perfection.
Blue Jasmine. US, 2013. Written and directed by: Woody Allen. With: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale. Cinematography: Javier Aguirres Arobe. Editing: Alisa Lepselter. Distributed by: Diamond Pictures. Running time: 96 minutes.