Blue Jasmine has been heralded as Woody Allen‘s return to form after a string of stinkers. Owen Wilson and the Academy Award that Allen won for 2011’s Midnight in Paris might protest, but there’s no doubt that Blue Jasmine hits a height that Allen hasn’t reached for some years. His direction is assured, and his plot moves swiftly enough to keep you interested, but the film is truly made by the outstanding acting performances. Cate Blanchett is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, while Alec Baldwin and Sally Hawkins could well receive nods for supporting roles.
We meet elegant New York socialite Jasmine (Blanchett) on a plane – first class, naturally – from New York to San Francisco. She’s chatting with the elderly lady next to her, but it quickly becomes clear that all is not okay with Jasmine. Her stream-of-conscious monologue about her luxurious life with former husband, financier Hal (Baldwin), is slurred, disconnected, and fully self-involved. It’s clear that she’s a woman quickly losing grip on reality.
Through a series of flashbacks we gradually find out the catalyst for Jasmine’s decline. She met Hal when she was still young, and he swept her off her feet. Not coming from a wealthy family, she couldn’t resist the luxury, attention and ease of life he offered her. When it turned out that it was all a ponzi scheme and Hal is thrown in jail, Jasmine loses everything. Her identity as a leisured elite is all she knows, and her self-esteem is totally bound up in others’ opinions of her. When this is decimated, so too is her self-worth and her already apparently well-developed pill and drink habit gets out of control.
Having hit what she thought was rock-bottom, she moves to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Hawkins). Here, she finds dignity hard to maintain. Ginger works in a grocery store, and dates a series of – in Jasmine’s words – ‘losers’. Desperate for cash, Jasmine takes a job at a dental office, where her boss (Michael Stuhlbarg) makes clumsy seduction attempts. Always trying to find ways to reclaim her former status, she’s elated when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a diplomat with political ambitions, who recognises that her elegance and social grace would make her an ideal political wife. Jasmine now desperately has to try to hide her past and hold herself together long enough to regain her self-worth through Dwight’s esteem.
While finely judged, and therefore not unnecessarily overt, Blue Jasmine is a biting social critique. Despite their good manners and charitable acts, the elites in the film are all selfish, greedy snobs. Hal is charming and smooth, but unfaithful and dishonest. Jasmine’s ‘friends’ desert her when her wealth goes. Al (Louis C.K.), the sound engineer Ginger starts an affair with after Jasmine tells her to find a better quality of man, turns out to be a creep. Jasmine’s revulsion for the ordinary borders on the comic. What seems to annoy her most about Hal’s suicide in jail, for example, is that he did it with, of all things, a ‘common rope’, as she tells Ginger, her voice dripping with scorn.
The 99% in the film, on the other hand, are honest and hardworking. Ginger doesn’t have big ambitions for herself, but she takes in her sister in her hour of need, something we’re left in no doubt Jasmine would never have done for her. Ginger’s boyfriend Chilli and ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), too, though perhaps little more than working class stereotypes, loved her genuinely, and unlike Hal, make an honest living.
And yet despite this, despite the fact that Jasmine brings so much of the trouble on herself, and could perhaps be seen to deserve what she gets, we empathise deeply with her. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is elegant and refined, but also deeply vulnerable, and that vulnerability makes her human.