Amid all of the vampire flicks and light comedies in the popular sphere a rising vogue in the blockbuster circuit is for movies about class division and conflicts writ large portrayed in mostly epic terms (Hunger Games, Elysium, Les Miserables). Most of these create a comfortable distance from an admittedly uncomfortable subject by placing the narrative in a fanciful past or a speculative future. By contrast one exceptional film that’s totally apart from the realm of high tech spectacle manages to address the subject by painting a sensitive and tragic portrait of a single individual’s descent from the heights of the social register to the depths of alienation and despair. The film is Blue Jasmine, a brilliant collaboration between one of America’s greatest living storytellers and one of the world’s best actresses. All through his career as writer and director, Woody Allen’s subjects have revolved around the delusional nature of middle class life. His main characters wander through their days in bewilderment, somewhat aware of their disconnect from the reality of their situations, trying valiantly to maintain an appearance of normality. Their general failure in this regard is, in a majority of his films the source for comedy. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp these characters navigate a very fine line that divides farce from tragedy. As the Tramp in The Gold Rush is forced to eat his shoes and acts as if he is dining on fine cuisine, Allen’s creatures stumble through their lives amusing us with a seeming obliviousness to the true nature of their condition.
In Blue Jasmine Allen teases us repeatedly with the expectations of farce, setting up situations that are ripe for expression as conventional comedy. His character Jasmine, married to a wealthy investment banker (think Bernard Madoff) who has been prosecuted and jailed for fraud, has fallen from the highest levels of New York Society and is now penniless. She moves in with her adopted sister Ginger in San Francisco to find a way to make an honest living. She finds herself in a world that’s entirely foreign to her, one in which people have to struggle with paying the bills and one in which the skills that served her in high society are totally useless and even counter productive. Along the way she’s forced to confront not only the consequences of her own actions on other people’s lives but the ordinary situations faced by working women every day (like sexual harassment and having to learn computer skills). The narrative is interjected with a series of flashbacks that reveal in successive stages, like the peeling of an onion, the depths and the consequences of her self-deception.
Although the situation is ripe for comedy, here Woody Allen chooses to bring us face to face with the ramifications of our own social blindness. Through these characters he shows us the deep gulf between a world of arrogant wealth and the hard edged realities faced by the working class. Along the way he tempts us with the fairytale promise of unrealistic expectations and then he brings us home to the realities of both love and betrayal. With deep familiarity and sensitivity he shows us both sides of the world, and this places Blue Jasmine in a class with some of the most penetrating literature of class and culture. I’m thinking of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Woody Allen’s films are essentially novels and in Blue Jasmine I think he’s achieved the maturity of an enduring classic that fully represents the anxieties and polarities of the time in which we presently live.
Cate Blanchett is cast in the role of Jasmine and displays an extraordinary range of tone and expression as she veers from one state to another in her journey from riches to rags. This is perhaps the most deeply realized and complex characters in a Woody Allen film and few could have carried it off as convincingly and even sympathetically as Ms. Blanchett. In terms of understanding the class and culture divide at the center of the narrative I was reminded of the segment ‘Cousins’ she performs in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, where she plays two characters in an uncomfortable conversation, one a successful actress and socialite, the other an envious underachiever. It could have been an audition for the role either of Jasmine or Ginger. The cast includes Sally Hawkins as Ginger, Alec Baldwin as Jasmine’s conman husband, Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s first husband and Bobby Cannavale as her current boyfriend Chili. All are excellent foils for the emotional gyrations of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine which deserves recognition as one of cinema’s great performances.