Jasmine: I think that when something’s right, you know it immediately.
Jasmine is the name of Woody Allen’s heroine in BLUE JASMINE, but it isn’t her real name. That’s Janette; and that’s far too pedestrian a name for this woman. She is a woman of stature, and a statuesque specimen at that. Janette could never do her justice and so, as Jasmine is born, so is another great Allen character, who might as well be named Blanche, for all she has in common with her kindred spirit from “A Streetcar Named Desire”. All names aside though, Jasmine would be nothing without the unnervingly unhinged performance of Cate Blanchett, which leads me to wonder how an Allen / Blanchett pairing hasn’t happened already? And while I may not have the answer to that question, I’ve got to say that I’m really happy they waited to make this one together. BLUE JASMINE may not be a classic film, but Jasmine herself is definitely unforgettable.
Allen foregoes the usual scenic admiration he often opens his films with, to cut straight to the character and rightfully so. When you have this much talent to work with, you don’t need to waste any time framing postcards. Jasmine is sitting on an airplane, prattling on to the woman sitting next to her about the pitfalls of her life in its current state. She might as well be muttering to herself though, as it is clear to everyone but Jasmine, that the only person who cares about her troubles is herself. She is en route to San Francisco to spend some time with her sister (Sally Hawkins), but there is nothing casual about this visit. There is also nothing remotely cursory about Blanchett’s performance either. She may be losing it on screen but Blanchett is well in control of this chaos the entire time.
The reason for Jasmine’s visit after so long is one of intense desperation. Her husband of many years and great means (Alec Baldwin) has gone to prison for fraud and left her with nothing. She is forced to leave behind her life of luxury and her fancy friends to slum it in San Francisco, with the sister she almost wishes she never had. Her sister, Ginger, is her polar opposite. Despite having been shunned and judged by Jasmine for so many years, and despite having lost what little money she and her former husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) had amassed in a bad business deal orchestrated by Jasmine’s husband, Ginger graciously opens her door, albeit a modest one, to the sister she’s always wanted to impress. This is a Woody Allen movie so naturally, this act of kindness does not go well for all involved. Allen reveals this complicated relationship to us by keeping us grounded in a tense presence, while constantly cutting back to divulge further detail about Jasmine’s past that makes her impossible to love but also equally impossible to hate as well. I’m just glad she’s not my sister.
BLUE JASMINE is Allen’s first film to feature a female protagonist since the shared duties of Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall in VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA. It is also perhaps his greatest work writing female characters since HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. The dynamic between Blanchett and Hawkins is fantastic in its familiarity. They genuinely seem like sisters, from the way Jasmine tries to get Ginger to make better choices for her life by tearing down the one’s she’s already made, to the way Ginger does away with everything she’s held dear just because Jasmine suggests it may be beneath her. What makes this particularly sad, or blue if you will, is that Jasmine actually thinks Ginger herself is beneath her. She sees Ginger’s kindness and emulation and rather than show her appreciation or do what a big sister is supposed to do for her little one, she simply takes advantage of it every way that she can.
To be fair, Jasmine is a fragile flower, if there has ever been one. Even if she wanted to do better by the people who are rooting for her, she doesn’t have it in her to do so. She can barely even get through the day without an emotional mishap, or a drink for that matter, so how can she be expected to do right by others when she cannot do right by herself? Jasmine’s frailty, her flair for the dramatic, and her complete disdain for the brutish, lower class life her sister leads, which is mostly directed at Ginger’s current beau and “Stanley Kowalski” substitute, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), make her almost entirely unlikable. The true shame though is that underneath all of this facade, Jasmine is breaking apart in a very real way more than any one knows.
Allen’s works often comment on class but BLUE JASMINE takes it to a new level and demonstrates that a director who is often criticized for being more and more out of touch with the realities of every day life, is still capable of tapping into experiences that modern audiences can relate to. Some may complain that BLUE JASMINE is more character focused than plot driven, but with characters as colourful and as compelling as these, the plot hardly seems to matter. Allen may have given us a tale of how the mighty have fallen but more importantly, he has raised himself back up in the process.
How many sheep would you give Blue Jasmine?