The fundamental neurotic character in Woody Allen films, traditionally played by Allen, is not entirely absent in his latest dark comedy, “Blue Jasmine.” It is, however, exaggerated, complicated in class satire and embodied in a female character played by Cate Blanchett. It’s interesting; whereas Allen’s male characters are charming and intellectually backed in their neuroses, Blanchett’s female character is superficial and clearly losing her sanity.
But Jasmine also has a different background. Unlike the recurring male character, Jasmine is not obsessed with existential questions or death; she is obsessed instead with money, status and security. Her extreme mental fragility does not stem from the privileged ennui of Allen’s typical neurotic character. It results from a destabilization of that privilege. Through the film’s bicoastal, bitemporal setting, split between San Francisco present and flashbacks of Jasmine’s New York past, Allen explains the root of Jasmine’s dramatic emotional turmoil.
What makes Jasmine’s frenzied desperation compelling is that her former socialite status is more or less forged. We understand this through her interaction with her lower-brow sister, Ginger, played by the phenomenal Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Submarine”). Both sisters were adopted from different parents. Unlike Ginger, Jasmine, who changed her name from Jeanette — a prime example of her self-fashioned identity — was able to cross class lines by marrying Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy man with corrupt business schemes. The film follows Jasmine’s reluctant move to San Francisco after her marriage falls apart.
Jasmine displays uncensored snobbery, refusing to move from one social stratum to another. She does not try to acclimate to Ginger’s “modest” (actually quite average) lifestyle. Her goal throughout the film is to find a replacement husband who will provide for her the financial security and lifestyle to which she has grown accustomed. She needs to reassert her position among the 1 percent. Allen aptly satirizes excess of the upper class elite, but that is not all he is doing. The absurdism of Jasmine’s privileged whininess and class discomfort becomes quite depressing.
As is Allen’s forte, he explores deeper psychological tendencies in Jasmine’s extreme anxiety about the way she is perceived by others. Jasmine’s coping mechanism is to fictionalize her identity by averting her eyes from the realities in front of her. She becomes an absurd caricature of a person — grandiose in her social interactions, physical movements and speech. Jasmine is, at times, a deplorable character, but the baggage beneath her outward theatrics makes her sympathetic. Blanchett conveys this oscillation masterfully and convincingly, playing Jasmine with the slightest tinge of mid-Atlantic in her accent, which skillfully accentuates the character’s theatrical air. Blanchett manages to make the rather grueling experience of watching her character also wildly entertaining.
Jasmine ridicules her sister’s taste in men, criticizing her for settling for less than she deserves. Meanwhile, Jasmine’s own search for eligible suitors is strictly based on superficial terms. While Allen satirically highlights the tragedy of expectation, disappointment and complacency in relationships, his presentation of female perspectives is troublingly simplified. Overall, the concerns of Allen’s female characters in “Blue Jasmine” feel rather dated.
Still, the characters are not flat, and both Blanchett and Hawkins masterfully bring their characters to life and counterbalance some of the film’s structural shortcomings. In a portrait of superficiality, privilege, class disparity, loss and a type of awry self-making, the storyline of
“Blue Jasmine” is promising, but its execution is a bit haphazard. Its tone is indeterminable, as Jasmine’s erratic behavior is made to be equally humorous and tragic at different moments. Its narrative flow is not as taut as it should be. Regardless, Allen’s trademark humor and complicated character development are guaranteed in his entertaining, albeit emotionally exhausting, tragicomedy.