“Blue Jasmine” is more than just Woody Allen’s latest proclamation to the world that at 77, he’s finally figured it all out (“In 1942, I had already discovered women.”). It’s more than just a character study of a has-been socialite torn between denial and an ever-fading notion of absolution. More, even, than Cate Blanchett gesticulating. At only slight risk of hyperbole, I’d go as far as saying it’s more than just a movie — it’s an unanswered question, thought up by Allen and posed in Blanchett’s thistle-honey voice.
It is, for no lack of a better phrase, The Shit. Most people who’ve seen it have echoed similarly fawning sentiments, albeit in slightly better wording. Yet, I find myself frustrated. Frustrated because so much of what I’ve read about the film in the month since its release has made the exasperating generalization that Jasmine Francis is another one of Allen’s one-note characters, smugly drawn to glimpse reality through a pair of binoculars. Is she darker, less neurotic? Yes, but ultimately etched in our psyche by perhaps the best piece of work by any actor or actress in five years.
Don’t get me wrong — I wouldn’t have seen this movie four times had it not been for that gargantuan performance, and Cate Blanchett deserves all the praise she will ever get and more for what she’s accomplished in this film. Simply put, it’s the type of portrayal that inspires other actors to be better, one that will be remembered years down the line for its near-flawless examination of mental decay.
But at the same time, it’s wrong to assume Jasmine was meant by Allen to be a horrible person, festering towards the madness she’s brought on her own snobby, perfectly coiffed head. No. This movie is better than that. It leaves you with something more meaningful than the bitter aftertaste that accompanies tongue-in-cheek simplification.
In truth, it’s a refreshing change of pace considering Allen has erected a prolific, storied body of work around the pervading (some would say annoying) idea that any character, no matter how complex, can be caricatured to occupy unapologetically sheltered environments: either Park Avenue havens or wherever the people who occupy Park Avenue havens think the other side lives. Here, Allen underscores the aloof irony of those caricatures, and through that isolation, gives us an engrossing study of the complicity of weakness and amorality.
The key word is complicity. One cannot exist without the other. Jasmine is rarely if ever truly amoral. Think about it: Is there ever a point in the film where she intentionally attempts to hurt someone? She calls Chilli everything except “greased-up fuckhead” and lies to anyone and anything within earshot, but really, every single insult she heaves or story she spins is, at inception, a vain attempt to fool herself — a knee-jerk reaction at the notion of confronting reality. She shudders at the idea of being dragged back down to the confines of the middle class so she jaunts around with her nose so far up in the clouds, you’re left wondering why she hasn’t already suffocated. But again, the only person who really seems to care is Jasmine.
In most of the reveries she gravitates toward when cornered, our protagonist ends up babbling about “Blue Moon”, a jazzy, crooning hit from a simpler time (when people could moon each other at high-school dances without getting sued). The song throws out flowery lines like, “You saw me standing alone / Without a dream in my heart / Without a love of my own.” These are lyrics that convey an almost naïve sense of vulnerability — vulnerability that latches itself onto Jasmine the moment she meets her con-artist husband Hal, and persists in her decomposition throughout this film. She tries to make it on her own, and her efforts are feeble yet earnest, only to be cut short by a hard-to-watch scene featuring attempted rape. She falls because, as the song suggests, she’s only ever known how to be supported, and without that crutch there, she has no option but to revert back to looking for another.
The first time I saw “Blue Jasmine,” I was reminded of the film “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” headlined by a similarly absorbing (though subdued) performance from Tilda Swinton. Both movies show us a woman’s struggle to find meaning in lives destroyed by personal tragedy and are both presented in an analogous intermittent-flashback structure. But they fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in their treatment of conflict. In “Kevin,” Swinton’s character is buffeted by public backlash, harassed and tormented for a perceived role in her son’s delinquency. She’s never in denial of what’s happened. She’s in shock, unable to think of anything other than where she may have gone wrong with her son, and the film excels in the deliberate buildup to their final, mutedly cathartic confrontation.
Unlike “Blue Jasmine,” “Kevin” never caters to any notion of vulnerability. The only driving force is fear, and because Swinton’s character is merely reacting — trying her best to not cave to outside pressures — we never blame her for what’s happened. Jasmine’s story is the same, just marred by her own perceived weakness, a weakness that makes her push outwards. And because she’s responding in a more tangible, futile manner, we incorrectly think she’s a bad person.
Vulnerability comes from love. Jasmine figures out early on that her husband has always been a crook, but she keeps herself in a state of denial because the feelings she has for him are genuine. Reality strikes in the form of Hal’s dalliances, and for the first time in her life, Jasmine goes out of her way to do something right: She turns him in. She’s hated for it, abandoned by her own son, who at first expresses horror at the realization that his father could be a fraud, but in the film’s heart-wrenching climax, admits he holds his mother more accountable for everything that has happened. Why? Because everything could have been fine if she kept her mouth shut.
It’s a sad revelation, but one that reaffirms the nuance behind this third act and gives us a glimpse at the scale of Jasmine’s real predicament. And when she finally sits on that bench, babbling to nobody, the question that Allen set out to ask finally presents itself: Does amorality breed weakness, or is it the other way around?