Woody Allen packed his creative bags and left New York City for Europe shortly after 9/11, as if trying to escape the impending destruction of the city that had been his muse and object of affection during the prior seven decades. In the 2000’s we see an abrupt change in his oeuvre, as he went from directing, writing and starring in a string of lighthearted romantic comedies (Small Time Crooks, Anything Else, Hollywood Ending) to perhaps the darkest period in his career since he consciously decided he was going to emulate his idol, Ingmar Bergman.
Allen’s European movies are marked by a feeling of disillusionment and often featured a proxy that would engage us as the “Woody Allen” figure. Between 2005 and 2008, he chose Scarlett Johansson to play this surrogate, who not only represented a link between the audience and the world of the film, but came to represent America, as a figure wandering the old continent trying to rediscover itself.
In Match Point, Johansson plays a woman who lets herself be seduced by a British tennis player only to have her affair end in fatality, in Scoop she was a naive journalist who becomes entangled in a murder story involving ghosts and in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she is a tourist who becomes involved with a man and his lunatic ex-wife. What all of these characters have in common is a sense of showcasing America as a displaced (if not always misplaced) entity, in search of meaning after being brutally savaged.
Allen has always argued that his work in no way represents aspects of his life or real life events, but he’s rarely been as political as he was in Midnight in Paris, a delightful film in which we see him in denial of the economic chaos that had started in his beloved New York City, by setting his story in the magical Paris of the ‘20s where other American artists had found solace and an outlet for their creative genius away from the brutality of the Great Depression.
It’s no coincidence that Midnight in Paris had been preceded by You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which is perhaps the darkest film of his entire career, not precisely in terms of plot, but because it feels like the work of a truly embittered artist who has lost all hope in what he once loved. The film shows us lovers, parents and friends entering an endless cycle of deceit and pain, all framed ironically by the lightheartedness and good intentions of a fortune teller. Allen, who is a renowned atheist, acknowledged that he had become interested in studying faith for this film because he thought, “we [all] need some delusions to keep us going”.
It’s this defeatist, but never defeated, Allen who returned to America with Blue Jasmine which is perhaps the single most brilliant tragedy of his career. The New York in this film is a land of illusion, where Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) shed her unexciting past life (and changes her name from Jeanette) to marry the wealthy Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) and become one of the city’s grand dames. But when Hal is discovered to be a swindler and sent to prison, where he eventually commits suicide, Jasmine is left completely penniless, trying to build her life back by starting over with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a lower middle class mother of two living in San Francisco.
This is where we first meet Jasmine, all dressed in Chanel, with an Hermes bag on her shoulder, overwhelming anyone willing to listen with grandiose stories of the opulent life she once led. Upon discovering her sister’s less than desirable living conditions, she decides to find herself a new man to marry (Jasmine can only be whole when she has a man next to her) and sets her eye on widower Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who confesses he’s looking for a woman to be the Jackie O. to his budding life in politics.
Allen has never attempted to hide the people and pieces that influence his work, and Blue Jasmine is nothing if not a riff off A Streetcar Named Desire, only he removed the sexual heat from Tennessee Williams’ iconic play and replaced it with lust for power and position (a topic covered by many other 2013 films including The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle). At the center of the film we have Blanchett delivering a monster of a performance in which she borrows from Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn and Geraldine Page, to create a character that’s as terrifying as she is heartbreaking.
Blanchett glows with old-world charm in scenes set during Jasmine’s better times, her voice taking an affected New England tone, her posture lanky and suave, as if she was starring in The Philadelphia Story, but there is always a glint of loss in her eye. In scenes where she begins to doubt her husband we see fear in her eyes that is almost instantly replaced by denial, whether in the shape of a bracelet or sex (“let’s make love” she demands after confronting him about rumors of him having an affair).
We see this look again when Dwight confesses her love for her and plans out a future that promises everything she once had and lost. Of course she has been lying to him about who she was, but for a minute we can’t help but feel thrilled for Jasmine. Despite her flaws and instability, Blanchett makes us feel empathy for her; because she is so lost, we long to see her found.
As she sits on a bench, talking to herself and trying to remember the words to “Blue Moon” (“I used to know the words” she demands from herself) we can’t help but feel that Allen, too, has returned to a life that can no longer sustain itself, his New York is now a city that has been raped by economic downfall and terrorism, and now he is left trying to create enchantment by remembering what once was so special about it. If Blue Jasmine had been made a few years prior, we would probably have seen Jasmine endure a harsher punishment for lacking a stronger sense of self, but Allen doesn’t seem to harbor any more bitterness and resentment. The biggest miracle in Blue Jasmine is that Allen sees her and loves her for who she is. Tennessee Williams sent his Blanche duBois into the abyss, Allen sends his Jasmine to the magical world where she always longed to be.
Blue Jasmine is presented in a stunning HD transfer, which allows us to see even more of Blanchett’s commitment to this performance (the sweat stains and bulging veins!). Interestingly enough for a Woody Allen film, this release has two superb bonus featurettes, one called Notes from the Red Carpet in which Blanchett talks about the role and a fascinating Press Conference featuring Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard and Andrew Dice Clay in which they talk about working with Allen, as well as how the Bernie Madoff case inspired the film.