Auteur of neurosis Woody Allen’s latest film, BLUE JASMINE, is ostensibly an updated take on Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire. The similarities are hard to miss: there’s the former society gal staying with her sister in a tiny apartment and dealing with her sister’s boorish lover. This posthumous collaboration between Williams and Allen struck me as rather odd at first. Williams’ plays are Southern gothic tragedies, full of unrequited longing and dark secrets. And Woody Allen is MANHATTAN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and HANNAH AND HER SISTERS. Williams is hot, sticky Louisiana and Allen is New York, London and Rome.
Upon closer reflection, the two masters share similar sensibilities. For one thing, they both offer incredible parts for actresses; their female leads are tough, vulnerable and cracking. Williams and Allen both write lyrical but authentic dialogue that actors revel in speaking. The two writers share a gift for exploiting the irony of human life, the desperation for change and the incapacity to make it happen. The theme of self-delusion runs through their films and plays. The marriage of Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen works because their stories are about people grasping for things completely out of their reach.
Of course, Allen is not just doing a straight remake of Streetcar (though that would be interesting). No, instead he uses the Streetcar template to comment on modern society alienation and the immense recession-era distrust of the one-percent. BLUE JASMINE opens with Jasmine (the Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett) talking to a fellow passenger on a plane. The conversation seems odd right off the bat. Jasmine goes on and on even though the lady she’s talking to is trying very hard to get away. And then it becomes clear: Jasmine is talking to herself and the other woman just thought she was a part of the conversation. This early scene is indicative of the unkind treatment Jasmine will get from the people around her, who choose to run away from Jasmine when the depths of her self-pretense become clear.
The theme of unkindness permeates the film. The only truly decent character is Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) and her fate is just as tragic as Jasmine’s. Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Ginger’s on-and-off boyfriend, is hostile and mean-spirited towards everyone (especially Jasmine). Al (Louis C.K.) romances Ginger into a fantasy and that doesn’t work out either. Jasmine’s ex-husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) and current beau Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) infect her and are infected by her. Jasmine’s New York friends betray her when they are needed most. Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) resents her for her part in his financial ruin. Even the relatively strong bond between Ginger and Jasmine dissipates as the film goes on. But no one is as unkind to these characters as Allen himself; he presents these lives and relationships as flimsy and unfixable.
Even as Jasmine tries to fix her situation, like getting a job as a receptionist or taking computer classes, her attempts backfire on her. The universe is unkind to Jasmine, because of her aloof entitlement, jealous paranoia and vast self-delusions. True, Jasmine does have an agency that Blanche DuBois lacked, an agency that allows her to try to make her sophisticated persona come to life. But what good did that agency do for Jasmine? Like Alvy Singer at the end of ANNIE HALL, like Vicky and Cristina after their trip to Barcelona and like Cecelia in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, Jasmine ends up exactly where she began. Her increasingly alarming self-delusions will become the only souvenirs from her journey.
Allen’s portrayal of Jasmine’s struggles does not paint her solely as a victim of an unfeeling world. She herself is an agent of her own demise, the unchecked cause of her crushing malaise. Like Carmela Soprano, she chose to forget about the circumstances of her wealth and luxury and she pretended to be an innocent royal. In Allen’s film, people aren’t kind to the Jasmines of the world; no one will take the time to come to the aid of a former one-percenter whose choices finally caught up to her.
As played by Cate Blanchett, Jasmine’s complete mental breakdown is so visceral that it is hard to completely hate her. I’ve always thought of Cate Blanchett as an actress who always looks like she has a splitting migraine onscreen and I mean that as a compliment. The crumbling of both Jasmine’s life and sanity is manifested in her physical affectations and mannerisms. It’s a startling performance, a counterpart to her remarkable one in NOTES ON A SCANDAL.
Allen has been criticized for making films concerned only with romantic, creative or existential dilemmas, cheekily called “first world problems.” BLUE JASMINE serves as a neat response to that. The film is a rather severe indictment of ill-gotten privilege and its devastating effects on the psyche. Jasmine may have enjoyed a life without want but she paid for it with a brutal nervous breakdown.
Jasmine is very much a Woody Allen creation by way of Tennessee Williams. She’s a fallen woman trying to stand up. She is both wounded and wounding. BLUE JASMINE takes the Woody Allen existential crisis and places it into the structure of a Tennessee Williams melodrama. If Streetcar was a harsh deconstruction of Southern Belle then BLUE JASMINE becomes the same of a Park Avenue Princess.