“BLUE JASMINE” IS Woody Allen’s strong return to form after the disappointing, shallow, silly “To Rome With Love”. Many of Allen’s familiar tropes are here: his pastiche of the pretentiousness of the rich, his pitch-perfect mimicry of vacuous, self-obsessed people and his loving observation both of cities ( San Francisco and New York) and interiors, as rich, emotionally resonant stage décor for his intricate plot-lines.
But this is Woody with a marked difference. Though the movie starts on a note of broad, almost farcical exaggeration (of the wild wealth of the central Bernie Madoff character, Hal – a well-cast Alec Baldwin), it quickly slips away from the easy banter and quick repartee of, say “Midnight in Paris” into a world where there really is no comic relief. We witness the depressing intensity of the struggles of two sisters, socialite Jasmine (an Oscar-contending Cate Blanchett) and her down-in-the mouth sister, Ginger (the always excellent Sally Hawkins).
One of Jasmine’s rambling speeches sums up the spirit of the story neatly. She says, “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown. There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
We’re first introduced to Jasmine on her flight from New York, where her life having collapsed, en route to seeking refuge with her sister in a slummy apartment in the wrong side of San Francisco. She’s not simply fleeing the city, she’s fleeing her past. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of her story: Husband, philanderer, charmer and ponzi-scheme master Hal has been sent to jail after his financial shenanigans have come to light. She, a self-confessed innocent that he was cooking the books, has been ruined; penniless (even though she’s flying first class) she’s on her way to mooch off Ginger until she can figure out her life.
Like her sister, Ginger’s life has also been ruined by Hal, she having been persuaded to invest all of her (and her ex-husband’s) savings into one of his get-rich schemes. Allen offers us the two women – radically different in personalities and circumstances – as two sides of the same coin. Their lives have both been shattered by the same man; they’re both facing futures of impoverished bleakness; and they’re both seeking an ‘out’ by using their sexuality to find the right man.
The difference is that whereas Ginger has the kind of inner resilience to face up to her circumstances and work within her circumscribed lot (even if that includes accepting the thuggishness of her lover – Bobby Cannavale), Jasmine’s life is reduced to a few knee-jerk ticks of snobbishness and hauteur; and a retreat into endlessly reliving and re-making her past. The name itself- Jasmine – is a creation, a persona, invented by her to fabricate an elegance, style and classiness of someone who is essentially the working class Ginger (but with better genes). It’s a trick she tries (in vain) again – re-inventing herself as the widow of a wealthy surgeon – to ‘trap’ a wealthy and available society catch, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard, best remembered for his caddish character in “An Education”).
Jasmine’s not so much a person as a persona. She’s such a pure manifestation of the socialite type that when all the necessary trappings that make up this persona fall away, there’s nothing left but an empty core. For her idea of herself is so embedded with wealth and with a certain life-style that its loss is a loss of self. As she loses her money, so too does she lose her sanity.
Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, is a stunning triumph. We witness her degenerate, as the story follows its inevitable path, from a glamorous, well-groomed adornment, to a drunk, rambling bag lady. This is Allen’s most unsparing indictment of the deep-rooted self-centered hollowness and amorality at the heart not simply of this niche of the upper-crust, but probably of society in general.
For there is no silver lining present here. Though he reserves his greatest scorn for the class bound up with its worship of Croesus-like wealth, Ginger’s squalid working class reality is no clichéd homage to the dignity and nobility of the poor. Her poverty is equally a poverty of spirit – a junk food life from which there is no escape (unlike Jasmine, she can’t fly anywhere) and the romantic ‘out’ of finding a good man, is just another dream.