I’ve written about my love for Woody Allen here on this blog before. I love his films with a passion and I am often one of the first filmgoers in the theater where I live at every premiere. Particularly since I had children, his films have become annual events for me that are transporting. While I am slightly partial to his films that take place in NYC, I have loved being swept away to lands far away over the last few years with Vicky Barcelona, Match Point, To Rome with Love, and in particular, Midnight in Paris. The director is 78 and has made 48 films, and I hope he continues for as long as he can.
After hearing conflicting reports about his new film, Blue Jasmine, I was eager to see it for myself, so I headed to the cinema during a recent lunchtime on my own. As soon as the credits rolled, I settled in for 100 minutes with my old friend. The intro music, the camera work, the casting, the dialogue — Woody Allen has a style and format to his films that has become familiar to me and is incomparable. It’s one that I look forward to, that speaks to me. Whether it be his Jewishness or love for culture, there is just something always in his script I can relate to.
I had heard that this film was depressing from one person, and from another that it was brilliant. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand both points of view but I wouldn’t dare agree with the first opinion. While it’s not the happiest of stories, the film deals with a serious subject, being mental illness, very delicately and the film does not toy around with it. Rather it embraces the story of a woman who is unraveling, coming apart. She’s having a nervous breakdown, which is no laughing matter, so why expect the director to handle it with laughter? Jasmine is played by Cate Blanchett, an actress I have long admired, but after watching her play a woman who’s life is changed in a flash when her existence goes from high society to practically homeless is riveting.
Married at a very young age to a very wealthy man (played by Alec Baldwin), she became accustomed to living a very idyllic existence, where everything was done for her, everything was bought for her and she looked a blind eye to both her husband’s affections for other women and his impending financial ruin. She has never worked or supported herself and is completely reliant on her husband and fancy life. When it falls apart, she has no one to take her in except her sister in San Francisco, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, a grocery store worker, and she moves in until she will supposedly figure life out. The two sisters have a sordid history, having once involving her in one of her husband’s warped business deals, which led to the dissolution of her sister’s marriage to her ex (played by Andrew Dice Clay), but her sister is good natured and shows her unconditional love. At least she tries to. Jasmine (is that her real name? We never really know.) is on the verge of falling apart.
After flying first class to San Francisco and talking the ear off an older woman on the plane (she is clearly unraveling), she shows up dressed to the nine’s and has a fast realization that her life is no longer the same when she walks into her sister’s apartment, a far stretch from her fancy pads in NYC. While continuously popping pills and slugging down vodka, she declares that she is going to get a job, return to school and become something. Her visit is fleeting, in her mind, she is determined to get it together. She has never lifted a finger to do anything in her life and is used to being showered with money and gifts.
The film shows the realities of a woman who has waited too long to learn how to be self-sufficient. She gets a job as a dental receptionist and manages to make it work, until the dentist makes a pass at her and she runs home in tears, popping more pills. She starts a computer class after having never touched one in her life and is determined to eventually become an interior decorator. When nothing seems to be working out, she turns to the dream of meeting a man who will sweep her away from all her problems and meets one at a party. That man comes in the form of a good-looking, good-natured diplomat (played by Peter Sarsgaard) but her lies are too big and full blown to keep them together and an unfortunate meeting tears them apart.
The film is a cross between Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanchett plays Blanche Dubois having a meltdown and Allen puts the focus is on her. She pulls out all the stops to play a woman unraveling – her body mannerisms and rolling eyes (sometimes frightening as they reveal the depth of her madness – watch them in her final scene with the dentist). All of the supporting characters, including the wonderful Bobby Cannavale who plays Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend, exist to create dramatic tension and show us the vast differences between the upper and lower class. She has lived in la la land for much too long and her adjustment to her new life is more difficult than she ever imagined.
It isn’t until Jasmine comes face to face with her unforgiving grown-up child at the end of the film that she realizes the impact of her narcissism and looking away from reality all those years. When she goes back to living with her sister, who has no money but has two happy children and a fiancee, which may not be perfect but we see her appreciating what she has, we wonder how Jasmine will ever fit in and who’s really happy in this world. Money, no money, it takes more to life to find meaning. Once again, I applaud Woody Allen for bringing a complex tale to the screen. He clearly understands the human mind and what it’s like to have life fall out from under you. He also understands women and the intricacies and issues involving self identity, and for that I am grateful.