I don’t read reviews or production notes before I see films, so it wasn’t until almost the end of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine that I realized it was inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire. Allen has done a number of homages to other filmmakers or based his movies on classics, but this is a jazz riff so accomplished that it transforms a disturbing meltdown into a pleasant experience.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, good writers borrow, great ones steal. My most successful scripts — in the sense they received the most favorable play in the industry — have all been adaptations of classics. This used to bother me, then I accepted it as simply part of what I do as a filmmaker. After seeing Blue Jasmine I’m now able to understand it as a strength. Thanks, Woody.
If this film is the apotheosis of everything Allen has been working towards his entire lengthy, prolific career, then Jasmine French is the role Cate Blanchett has been rehearsing up until now. You have never seen her in anything so suitable, so profound, so authentic, and are unlikely to again; films like this, wherein all the often-wobbly variables of the craft align flawlessly, simply don’t come around that often.
Jasmine is a woman who lived in the upper one percent of the one percent on Park Avenue with her financier husband (Alec Baldwin), but has now lost everything because of that husband’s quasi-Madoff-level swindling. Left with nothing, she is forced to move in with her far more down-to-earth sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco. Just like Blanche Dubois with Stella, Jasmine upends Ginger’s life simply by being who she is, an unhinged force of nature that is a danger to herself and everyone around her. Jasmine’s tragic circumstance would normally be given hackneyed comic treatment in any other Allen film, but here are handled with enough gravitas that finally — finally! — I was able to connect in a visceral way with one of this auteur’s pieces.
Indeed, at the risk of making this all about me, I didn’t just connect, I identified with Jasmine. While I have never lived a life quite on her level of monied privilege, that distinction is like degrees of fluency in a language — it wasn’t until my world and lifestyle collapsed in a similar way a few years ago that I understood just how privileged I’d been the whole time. I didn’t lose it in quite the same manner — I’ve always been a heavy vodka drinker like Jasmine becomes, and my former Xanax habit was when I was actually living high on the hog rather than when I went through circumstantial collapse, which is when I sobered up. (Yeah, so I tend to do things backwards.) Above all, it’s the way Jasmine expresses the shock and grief of her trauma that struck a chord; methinks Allen is drawing from some sort of personal experience with Jasmine above all other characters, and that realness is the film’s most effective ally, as is Blachett’s performance.
It’s pitch-perfect dialogue delivered with every resource Blanchett has in her being, combined with a plot that comes together in one of those miraculous ways that startles writers in the rare instances it happens, which forms the rock-solid backbone of the film. This is how I like my stories: utterly believable and convincing in the way they are executed, and above all about something. Everything else is just insubstantial fantasy, and I include the majority of art-house films with the summer blockbusters when I say that.
It’s delightful to see Hawkins reprise her eager-to-please Polyanna role from Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in this film, albeit with some sort of New England accent I couldn’t pinpoint. In fact, the entire tone and style of the film makes it seem that the former Woody Allen has thankfully died and been reincarnated as that great British realist. (I’m not holding my breath that this particular lifetime will last long, though.) The other notable, daring casting coup is disgraced stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband, Augie. This could do for his career what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta.
It’s a tribute to Louis CK’s meteoric rise that the audience at the screening I attended almost burst into applause when he came on screen. The role he plays is the less intricate of the ensemble, however, and that was oddly disappointing, as if you expect more form him. But what more could he do with just a few scenes? Baldwin is right at home as the louche powerbroker, although more nuanced than usual thanks to Allen’s scripting. I’ve always been a huge fan of Peter Sarsgaard’s — he’s his generation’s John Malkovich, but without the acclaim, sadly. I’ve also always liked Bobby Cannavale, too, and not just because he’s every gay indie-film lover’s hunny; the man can act… yes, within a limited range, but he can act.
Santo Loquasto’s sets have for many years been one of the sturdier elements of Allen’s films, but here he knocks it into the divine with an extraordinary level of detail that entirely complements and frames the characters and their particular situations. The same goes for Sonia Grande’s costumes. Grande must have been in seventh heaven watching the dailies and seeing Blanchett breezing through looking the frame like she’s in a fashion shoot by Peter Lindbergh. At times it’s as if the only thing holding Jasmine together is her preternatural sense of style, and Grande pulls a wardrobe together that would make Grace Coddington resign her position as Vogue’s fashion editor in despair.
While there will no doubt be a few contenders as formidable as Blue Jasmine, come awards time we’re probably going to see quite a few nods and statuettes to both Blanchett and Allen, as well as the supporting cast. Or maybe I’m just punch-drunk happy to see Allen transform his signature stuttering, two-dimensional, overly clever dialogue and storytelling into a masterpiece that is more in line with my own sensibilities. All I can say is I grew up with this man’s movies, I have suffered through the somewhat enjoyable to the downright awful (Cassandra’s Dream?), but I have never been inclined to call him genius. I am now.