I felt on edge when I came out of the cinema having seen Blue Jasmine. Being on edge is not a feeling I’d normally associated with a Woody Allen picture. Sometimes a little sad, maybe cynical, often still laughing, but a feeling that at any moment the song Blue Moon might send me spiraling into madness (it makes sense when you’ve seen the film), was certainly a new sensation. But this wasn’t a ‘typical’ Woody Allen film, although his recent output might suggest there’s no such thing. The prolific director has been steadily producing a film a year to very varying levels of success. So, perhaps it’s the law of averages which has led to Allen’s best film in decades.
It’s certainly not the ‘return to form’ which many critics are hailing it as: Allen’s had many returns to form before ( the critically adored Midnight in Paris) only to follow them up with epic misfires (the charmless To Rome With Love). There’s no telling if his return to Europe in his next feature will continue the cycle. But I suspect when Allen returns to New York, a city so inextricable from his nature, he will produce his best work. Whilst the majority of the film takes places in San Francisco, it’s New York where the titular Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) remembers her old life as a Park Avenue socialite, before her husband’s (Alec Baldwin) financial crimes leave her with nothing (bar a few Louis Vuitton bags) and living with her estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco.
Jasmine’s descent into madness, her brief glimmer of redemption in the form of Peter Sarsgaard, and her final scene alone on a park bench talking to herself with no hope of a future, are a marvel to behold. All the superlatives to describe Blanchett’s performance have all been used, suffice to say that I haven’t believed so completely in a character for years. You can both pity and loathe Jasmine over the course of a short scene: as she swigs martinis and pops Xanax whilst dispelling wisdom to Ginger’s kids on the merits of being a ‘good rich person’, Blanchett both entrances and terrifies.
Allen never makes her out to be a villain or a figure to be despised. But then Allen’s films have never been about passing judgement. They may have got darker and more cynical over the years, but he never sets out to demonise the rich. Indeed I imagine the high life of Manhattan’s upper class is a lifestyle Allen is all too familiar with to pass any condemnation. If there was anyone Allen seeks to draw scorn upon it would be the adulterers (strange given his past films and his own personal life). Whether it be Jasmine’s philandering husband, or Ginger’s potential suitor, Al (Louis C K), it’s the men who cheat who are shown to cause the most emotional anguish.
So whilst Blue Jasmine has some of the strongest political undertones of any of Allen’s films, the real interest is in the characters and their response to Jasmine’s drastic change in fortune. Allen has assembled a great supporting cast, who all shine when they could easily have been overshadowed by Blanchett’s towering performance. Blue Jasmine engages as comedy, drama and satire – a balance Allen hasn’t struck for years. But, perhaps Allen’s real masterstroke is that at times you feel like you’re not watching a Woody Allen film at all. And isn’t that after all what he’s always wanted?
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