Over the summer of 2013, I had the pleasure, and challenge, of working as a teaching assistant for a group of high school students participating in a three-week program on Social Justice and Civic Engagement. This assemblage of young people that I was blessed to interact with, and learn from, were there because they were deemed “the brightest” or “exceptionally talented.” It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that several years down the line, I would learn they had just graduated from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. I myself had participated in the program just five years prior, though my alma mater is much more humble and simple in comparison (but I wouldn’t wish it any other way). Both experiences have taught me countless things, many of them complimentary, several of them widely different. However, there is no revelation that disrupts the seemingly calm lake of a young individual’s world view quite like the giant, crude boulder of the concept of Privilege. It’s quite possibly the most frustrating portion of the curriculum. Here, you have a class divided where it once was a whole. You have the students whose recognition of Privilege is easy to swallow, because they have lived with such knowledge since they have rarely benefitted from it, though they recognize those who have. For others, nothing could be harder to stomach than the idea that they play a part in the systemic obstacle to change. How could they possibly be a source of injustice? After all, they haven’t done anything wrong, have they? Some are able to not like it, but at least accept it. The rest…no, for them it cannot be. They fight it, challenge it, even defend it. And who can blame them? When faced with such a horribly real reflection, would you meet its gaze unflinchingly? Isn’t it easier just to look away?
Woody Allen is a master of humor, primarily when it suits him. No living director could boast such an impressive, but also mixed bag, of a resume. He’s directed forty-four films in the last forty-eight years, and he’s currently finishing up his forty-fifth. For every great Allen treasure, there’s an Allen dud. For every Annie Hall, there must be a To Rome, With Love. Yet, Allen isn’t in it to be liked or disliked, but rather to tell interesting stories with their own brand of humor. Some are wonderfully goofy (Love and Death, Manhattan Murder Mystery), some are instant classics (Manhattan, Annie Hall), some are odd (Mighty Aphrodite), some are strangely romantic (Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris), and some are positively biting (Crimes and Misdemeanors). I think it’s that last kind that I find particularly intriguing. Allen isn’t just trying to make us laugh, but to really challenge us, and I always love to be challenged. I believe it’s safe to say that Blue Jasmine is one of those films. It’s painful to laugh at, hard to look away from, uncomfortably relevant, and quite simply one of his best films in a long time.
Following his trademark credits of his cast listed in alphabetical order, we are immediately introduced to Jasmine who has trapped an innocent woman in a seemingly never-ending, one-sided conversation. We laugh in relief when the woman escapes Jasmine’s conversational clutches after only a few minutes, but we are forced to endure Jasmine for the rest of the film. We would have been lucky to have gotten away with the other woman, but no such luck. The understood agreement between film and audience in the movie theater is that we must sit it out and watch the whole thing. Allen plays this card to his advantage; a truly challenging move from an expert veteran. Would we endure exposure to such an individual in real life if we had the chance? Of course not, but that might just be the point.
Jasmine is an almost sickening creation, made stunningly real by Cate Blanchett, who is once again flexing her acting chops to remind us all why she’s one of the greats. There’s a reason she’s been picking up accolades left and right, most recently from the Globes, Critics Choice, and SAG. Mark your ballots, readers, she has the Oscar in the bag. If performances can be called masterpieces, this might be Blanchett’s (but there are special places in my heart for her Queen Elizabeth and Bob Dylan). It’s an overarching descent of a journey, though intercut to enlightening effect, and Blanchett navigates it with exceptional ease. Whether opposite Alec Baldwin and Sally Hawkins, or just a couple of kids, she commands the screen. Playing progressive insanity might be a challenge for some, but she has the perfect actor’s palette to color it startlingly convincing. A dash of paranoia here, a splash of panic and desperation there, here a wounded spirit, there a scathing socialite, and a little self-absorbed ignorance everywhere. It’s all putty in her hands, and paint on her canvas. One should not be easily surprised to learn that Blanchett portrayed Blanche DuBois onstage for the Sydney Theatre Company no more than 6 years prior. Jasmine is the modern Blanche, and Blue Jasmine is certainly a modern Streetcar.
Though one could understand how Blanchett’s towering performance might leave her the single noteworthy performance of which to speak, juicy supporting roles abound. Woody Allen also has a knack for assembling compelling casts, a mix of veterans and new kids on the block. (In fact, a video that made the rounds in 2013 took note of all the great performers who started off with a bit part in a Woody Allen film.) Though noticeably simpler than her onscreen sister, Sally Hawkins’ work as the Stella-esque Ginger is fantastic in its own right, and following a late season surge, has garnered the Oscar recognition it justly deserves. Bobby Cannavale and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay offer up some complex brutes akin to Stanley. Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast as Jasmine’s crooked and cheating husband. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) has an uncomfortably hilarious minor role as a dentist whom Jasmine has the unfortunate opportunity to work for. There’s a couple of fun scenes with Max Casella (would had some fun in Inside Llewyn Davis as well), and Louis C.K. is wonderfully delightful, as always.
Though not as outwardly notable as some of Allen’s latest efforts, the below the line elements are exceptional nonetheless. The screenplay is naturally sharp and crackling with fun dialogue any actor would love to sink their teeth into, but also complimentary in its out of order examination of events (in execution, a feat for which current Allen film editor, Alisa Lepselter, deserves some recognition). There’s a simple, understated contrast established by the set decoration of the homes of the rich and famous and the homes of the everyday San Francisco resident that goes a long way. The general humidity and heat of the film is brought on by Javier Aguirresarobe’s vibrant, simple cinematography. And saving the best for last, special recognition must be given to costume designer Suzy Benzinger for Jasmine’s pit stains, because there should just be an award for such odd, character focused work.
All that being said, Jasmine is undoubtedly the center of this particular film, and rightly so. Her life has been a ride from rags to riches to rags, but, more importantly, her life has been a lie. In fact, many characters lie to themselves about their relationships, their identity, their wants, their needs, sometimes to others, and constantly to themselves. But, Jasmine is chief among them. Why? She’s unwilling to acknowledge the problems in her life, or to address any grave concerns that might come along. If it isn’t pleasant, she doesn’t want to know about it. That’s how she operates. She’d much rather focus on what delights her, and completely ignore anything that could upset her established way of thinking. Even her original name is unappealing to her, so she hides it behind a far more beautiful and poetic name. As Mark Twain so brilliantly observed, “When red-headed people are above a certain social grade, their hair is auburn.” And why not? In her world, in our world, wealth changes anything and everything. Wealth affords her the opportunity to forget the woes of the everyday person, because they are beneath her. And when the cruel hard hand of reality finally slaps her unexpectedly across the face, there’s no stopping her tragic plummet of destruction. Though she fights and claws desperately in an effort to deceive herself, there’s really no looking away from the fast approaching rocky bottom. She believes that wealth is her only savior. Of course, she could want nothing more than to return to the cozy, sheltered, worry free life she had before; the life that money can buy. Wouldn’t we all?
Here is the mirror of Privilege in front of her, in front of us. Turn away, and life is easier, simpler, and seemingly worry free. Ignorance IS bliss, but ignorance is ALSO deception. By turning away, we shut out reality, because reality isn’t appealing to us. Still, can we comfortably live with ourselves, knowing we are part of the problem because we refuse to acknowledge it? Can we so easily ignore the lives and plights of others who we have the potential to be supportive of? Can we be so neglectful of change because it suits us? Most of us have a hard time simply choosing reflective art over blatant escapism. After watching Blue Jasmine, my film viewing companion remarked how they didn’t care for it. When I asked them why, they said, “It wasn’t a nice story.” Why? Does it all work out in the end? It doesn’t. Does it have a happy ending? It doesn’t. Does it make you feel good about who you are? No, it doesn’t. And isn’t that the point? The true genius of Blue Jasmine is that we can’t turn away because it’s right in front of us. Allen is using the film to focus our attention on Jasmine, and, in turn, our own reality. There’s a brilliant moment at the very end of the film that sums up the whole message simply. Broken, downtrodden, bereft of wealth, and friends, and sanity, Jasmine makes her way to sit on a bench next to a perfect stranger reading a newspaper. She has hit rock bottom, and become someone who her prior self would easily have been repulsed by. Perhaps she is repulsed by herself currently. Nevertheless, she continues to babble to herself, still fighting to lose touch with reality. And the stranger with the newspaper, put off by such an unwelcome and uncomfortable presence, moves. Jasmine is left alone, because her existence is unpleasant to other people. Would the old Jasmine have left her current self so hurriedly, or would she have stayed seated next to her? The more important question, I think, is would you?