Plot When Jasmine French’s Park Avenue life falls to pieces – due to arrest of her wealthy but corrupt investment banker husband Hal – she has no choice but to move into her estranged sister Ginger’s modest apartment in San Francisco in an effort to rebuild her life. Jasmine’s previously well-to-do existence is told in flashback, while in the present she struggles to be comfortable in an environment she considers beneath her. Throughout the flashbacks it is revealed that Ginger and her then husband Augie won a considerable sum of money in the lottery, and this was embezzled by Hal, for which Ginger appears to bear her sister no ill will. Ginger also witnessed Hal kissing another woman; she dropped hints about this to Jasmine, who became suspicious and confronted Hal. Unrepentant, Hal admitted to many infidelities; angry, Jasmine contacted the FBI and had Hal arrested. Meanwhile, in the present, Jasmine decides to become an interior designer and takes computer classes so that she can study online. She also takes a job as a receptionist, but is sexually harassed by her superior. Things start to look up when Jasmine meets a US diplomat at a party, but this relationship is cut short when he discovers she has been lying to him about her past (she claimed her husband was a heart surgeon). During these episodes Ginger breaks up with, then gets back together with her boyfriend Chili. The film ends with Jasmine, distraught, talking to herself on a park bench.
Film note Woody Allen’s prolific career as a comedian, writer and film director has now spanned more than five decades. Blue Jasmine, his newest film, surpassed $90m at the box office thanks to strong sales both in the US and beyond, and has garnered wide critical acclaim. The praise for Blue Jasmine follows the earlier critical disapproval of To Rome with Love (2012), a film that itself followed Allen’s most successful travelogue film to date, 2011’s Midnight in Paris, which grossed over $155m worldwide. Midnight in Paris, in turn, came after a decade in which Allen’s films were either critically lauded (Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)) or quickly forgotten (Cassandra’s Dream (2007)). This see-sawing critical reception speaks to Allen’s enduring and habitual filmmaking practices – as this director points out in interviews, he prefers the notion of quantity over quality, working quickly with minimum takes per scene and shooting on locations “that are easy to live in” (qtd. in Higginbotham). In Mark Olsen’s words, “Allen has maintained a startling work rate, making in essence one film a year for going on 35 years. At times it can be frustrating to keep up with his output, and there can be something haphazard about his prolificacy. This may be why “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” struggles to make $3 million in the U.S. one year and “Midnight in Paris” brings in nearly $57 million the next.” This one-film-per-year cycle follows nature itself, which grants each of us a new story annually, meaning it has become a habit to await anxiously the arrival of a new Allen film (some of us dreading it might be his last). Blue Jasmine shows not only how Allen’s production practices continue to be successful, but also how his European films have influenced his style. Moreover, it is one of Allen’s most topical films, seeing him tackle issues of class and self-deception without losing his distinctive voice.
Almost always profitable A series of commercial failures between 2001 (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion – with a budget of $33m his most expensive film to date) and 2005 (Melinda and Melinda) forced Allen to abandon his New York comfort zone and venture into European settings, where his films have regularly fared better. As Frédérique Brisset argues, “Woody Allen does not belong to the Hollywood studio system, and his success relies much more on European than American markets.” Nonetheless, Allen remains reliant upon major studios, in recent years going through contractual deals with DreamWorks, Focus Features, The Weinstein Company, MGM/UA and finally Sony Pictures Classics. Prior to 2009, Allen’s European travelogue output has been so polarising that Sony decided not to emphasise his famous name during their marketing campaign for Whatever Works (2009), instead showcasing the lead actor Larry David and the tagline “A new comedy”. As Charles Gant suggested, “only those with eagle eyes could spot that this was a picture written and directed by Woody Allen” (17). Ever since then his films have been more or less successful, with Midnight in Paris being his biggest hit to date.
The fruitful collaboration between Sony Pictures Classics and Woody Allen (which can be traced back to Sweet and Lowdown in 1999, which despite critical success flopped at the box office) brings together an industry-respected distributor specialising in the distribution of art-house films that are “unique for their longevity, for their high success rate and for their determination to stay small” (Matthews) and a director who is going through a late renaissance period in his career. Allen represents a rare case in the industry because he continues to make films that follow a certain formula (explored through different angles) and, thanks to numerous admirers and benefactors, he has carved out a trademark space for himself in the marketplace. Safeguarded by his sister/producer Letty Aronson (thus completing a tight circle of creative control), his films often cost around $15m, much of which comes from investors outside the US. As a result, Allen’s film are (in spite of the seesawing box office and critical reception) “almost always profitable” (Burstein). The recent success of Blue Jasmine shows again that US audiences are interested in his more serious work, in this case because he manages to connect his everlasting and ever-evolving topic – the observation of human nature and relationships – to a highly contemporary concern, namely the financial crisis of 2008.
In terms of Allen’s own artistry the film follows a “thematic conceit that has been percolating through his recent movies since at least the dual stories of 2005’s Melinda and Melinda, as in film after film he has been pondering a series of existential what-ifs” (Olsen). Indeed, his recent films, whether “comedic or dramatic, are all structured around a reflective, ruminative mood, as if Allen has been looking back on his celebrated, knotty life and examining the forks in the road” (Olsen). As Blue Jasmine’s success reveals, his audience is still there, addicted and anxious to find out the psychological insight that he has to offer.
From Europe to San Francisco In the past decade, Allen’s travelogue collection of films in London, Barcelona, Paris and Rome have strengthened his position as an international director and further inured him to his European fans. The reason for this geographical shift was partly financial: “With the rise of production costs in his and his films’ maternal home of New York, Allen has made the business decision to take advantage of European money available and shoot seven of his last nine films in Europe” (Risker). As a result, Allen has undergone a transition from a purely metropolitan US director to a cosmopolitan one, being forced to change his usual formula to suit the locations where he works. To look at the method he uses to depict these cities is to analyse his personal relationships to them, his portrayal of Americans abroad (which includes notions of tourism, post-war cinema and the search for identity), and his interaction of each city’s aesthetics. His detractors tend to condemn the way he romanticises European cities but it seems that this was always his genuine vision of these places. Usually the relationship between the tourist and the city shows how strange or welcoming the city is, how much interest the tourist has in the city and how much the experience alters their identity.
The relationship between the tourist and the resident is one of alienation, prejudice, cultural clashes, infidelity and a broader search for personal identity. In almost every one of his European adventures, Allen shapes the geographical landscape by infusing it with his trademark themes. The landscape in turn shapes his filmmaking: Midnight in Paris “is perhaps the closest example of geography having a dominating influence on Allen in his European phase. While every other of his European films could have been shot in America, Midnight in Paris is exclusively dependent upon the city’s history” (Risker). I believe this is where his most apparent connection to a city other than New York is at its strongest, Midnight in Paris depicting a deeply personal soul-searching journey back in time that is highly particular to the Parisian setting. With this in mind, to what extent can Blue Jasmine be considered a continuation of Allen’s work in Europe?
After exploring the theme of the transatlantic confrontation of cultural capital and human superficiality in Europe, Allen returns to the States with a bleaker, more American story. In Blue Jasmine, the story of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is divided between her past high-life in New York and the present life in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Why San Francisco? According to the director himself the city was chosen principally out of comfort: “[Jasmine’s] sister could have lived anyplace and it would have been fine. I couldn’t live anyplace that was the problem” (qtd. in Olsen). Albeit a joke, San Francisco could seem to be “anyplace” at first glance since in the film it is portrayed as a very working-class environment with its everyday locations of supermarkets, dentist offices and clam restaurants, and absence of tourist traps and iconic monuments. But it is more interesting to explore how Allen took the decision to strip the West Coast alternative to New York of all its standard cinematic moves (the Golden Gate bridge, Lombard Street etc.) and detach it from its (usually positive) depiction, in the process almost granting it the status of an anti-hero.
San Francisco is presented as “an inchoate urban centre with no real defining features”, echoing and exacerbating Jasmine’s psychological turmoil (Jenkins). The down-to-earth portrayal of a working-class life in the city effectively menaces the heroine because it constantly reminds her of her previous affluent and easy life amongst the elite. As the cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe noted, Allen avoided the postcard sights, asserting that “The camera has no other merit than describing these places with some realism” (Aguirresarobe qtd. in Block). Whereas New York is a matter of the past, a dazzling illusion of wealth, San Francisco is re-constructed as a menial reality that is fine for everyone but Jasmine. The film is, however, alive to the potential beauty in the mundane spaces depicted, capturing them in warm, sensual colour tones that are similar to the Barcelona of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Even Jasmine comments that the place “is so beautifully European, it reminds me of the Mediterranean”, a remark that illustrates not only the pleasantness of her surroundings but also Jasmine’s inevitable desire to return to the past rather than deal with the present.
The locations in San Francisco are depicted quite differently to their appearances in other films. One the most famous San Franciscan films, Vertigo (1958), similarly features a female character going through an identity crisis, a woman who, like Jasmine, “is being rebuilt to conform to a romanticised ideal. Of course, the key difference is that in Vertigo the female reconstruction is done by the obsessive male protagonist, while in Blue Jasmine it is done by Jasmine to herself” (Caldwell). Vertigo relishes presenting the city not as a postcard, but as part of the problem of the story: protagonist Scottie’s (James Stewart) fear of heights begins right when his partner dies falling from the rooftops of the Russian Hill neighbourhood, and his ensuing acrophobia is connected to the geography of the city. Moreover, “[a]s if to drive home just how unstable Scott[ie]’s world is, Hitchcock located his home toward the bottom of a hill on Lombard Street with a daunting incline” (Sydell), and then placed the female protagonist at the top of the same hill, emphasising their difference in social class and the social climbing that is making him dizzy. Another notable area in Vertigo is of course the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, which looms threateningly over the main characters. This geography is used to mysterious effect: “The city’s winding streets and mansions set above the deep blue bay are familiar, but over the course of the film they reveal themselves to be dangerous, and their history seems to rise up and tug at the characters in the present” (Sydell).
In Vertigo, then, Hitchcock used the city symptomatically to express Scottie’s psychology; by contrast, in Blue Jasmine the city’s spirit is nullified as it is put forward as a common reality. It is this as much as anything else that drives Jasmine insane. San Francisco’s anti-stylised portrayal is used as a soulless backdrop for Jasmine’s fall. With this riches-to-rags story, Allen reverses the notion of the American dream into an American nightmare, and through this examines contemporary class structures in the US with his distinctive balance of comedy and tragedy, ultimately exposing the devastating truth behind Jasmine’s situation.
Gender, class and the tragi-comedy of life Originally released in August 2013, Blue Jasmine was re-released nationwide in December the same year to 300 theatres in order to capitalise on potential Academy Award interest, a strategy that had been employed to similarly successful effect for Midnight in Paris (“Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’ Returning…”). This re-release placed the film amongst a group of topical films that depicted the charismatic charlatans of the US business world, including The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and American Hustle (2013). Five years after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, these films are able to resonate with audiences, albeit each in their own distinctive way. Blue Jasmine is a singular piece of work in Allen’s portfolio because although it bears the famous brand name of its director – and with it the seemingly negative connections to the wealthy Upper East Side world that he brings to almost every single one of his films – it is nonetheless a serious drama that sheds truth on the collateral damage of notorious Wall Street con artists such as Bernie Madoff (arrested for fraud in 2008), represented in the film through the all-smile and no-soul character of Hal (Alec Baldwin).
Blanchett notes a comment Allen once made about self-delusion: “We all know the same truth, and […] our lives consist of how we choose to distort it” (this quote appeared earlier in Deconstructing Harry (1997)) (qtd. in Olsen). Fighting mortality, the little time we have is consumed with hopes of being successful, of being able to attain certain ambitions that would procure happiness and self-fulfilment. This success is inherently tied to one’s social standing in a class-defined society, yet the American Dream is predicated upon the idea that everyone has an equal chance of achieving their goals and therefore of securing happiness. This leads to a lack of social cohesion: “Closely tied to the American Dream is the ideology of rugged individualism, wherein each citizen is expected to take responsibility for his or her own success. This emphasis on individualism also works against a sense of a shared class identity” (Benshoff & Griffin 168). Individualism is another word for “every man for himself”, which leads to competition instead of cooperation. This ideology leads to an addiction to wealth accumulation in order to maintain a privileged socio-economic status. Blue Jasmine’s Hal is a notable example of this: he is a Madoff-like swindler who has seduced a bright and beautiful woman and made her his trophy wife. Even though Hal is part of the upper class due to his wealth, his money wasn’t honestly earned; his fraudulent scheming is the evolutionary endpoint of the rugged individualist ideology that America is founded on. As the hedge fund managing protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street announces: “America is a business”.
Blue Jasmine emphasises that Hal wealth’s was not earned through craft or art but the kind of credit fraud perpetrated by Madoff, whose Ponzi scheming destroyed the lives of many people, forcing them into poverty or bankruptcy. Whether Jasmine knew of her husband’s criminal activity or not, (the end of the film cleverly suggests that she did) she is nevertheless still willing to deceive herself about her involvement and culpability in order to enjoy the high life and escape what she perceives to be the unbearable hardship of a working class existence. The film shows that Ginger is leading a relatively happy life (she has accepted the fact that she lost her chance to become rich), whereas Jasmine fails to integrate herself into a new reality. She tries to find work: her ambition to become an interior decorator, and her determination to become self-sufficient recalls her earlier years as a student of anthropology, this drive for education lost in the intervening years when she was married to Hal. But after enduring sexual harassment at work, she throws away her ambition and parasitically attaches herself to another wealthy man. In Blue Jasmine, gender and class collide with wealthy men tending to choose beautiful women as their trophy wives in order to strengthen their image and status as high society men. Their women are not their equal partners but mere status symbols.
By dissecting Jasmine’s life in an unflinching way, Allen critiques the superficiality and falseness of members of the high society, a society that in the end does not create or provide for anybody. Furthermore, the clashes between Jasmine and her sister are symbolic of differences between classes, yet these differences are revealed as inherently false: “One of the falsities the film presents for why Jasmine enjoyed a life of privilege while Ginger remained poor includes Jasmine being genetically superior as they are both adopted so not birth sisters. Another suggestion, cruelly made by Jasmine, is that Ginger never worked hard enough, reflecting a popular piece of rhetoric used to justify social inequality” (Caldwell). Allen instead proposes that class identity is some kind of illusion that helps us survive the meaninglessness of life: “privileged entitlement and the naïve concept of the ‘noble poor’ are both exposed as forms of self-delusion that rely on tenuous concepts of class and wealth to define who we are” (Caldwell). This is demonstrated effectively via Blanchett’s complex performance, which shows a woman whose “slow-motion mental breakdown is an expression of something deep inside her — not just her genetic coding but her stubbornly idealistic will, her inability to be anyone other than her dream of who she longs to be” (Gleiberman). Jasmine is unable to see the falsities for what they are, and this is why she is unable to escape her predicament.
The hopelessness of the situation is a reflection of the harsh economic times that have beset America since the financial crash. The film reads as a commentary on the state of a contemporary American society in crisis. It is a reflective exercise showing the economic and social gap between classes and it is a criticism of the immorality of isolated financial elites who lack the “authenticity” of working class life. But it also presents Jasmine as a person who could not say no to the possibility of becoming a success (that is, wealthy), and it is Allen’s artistry that conveys the idea that in a world dominated by the imperative to be successful it is perhaps not right to judge Jasmine for saying yes. Thus Allen manages once again to communicate his everlasting view on the meaninglessness of life; as Thomas Cladwell writes, “without the delusion of happiness for what we have got, we will fall into catatonic despair.”
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Written by Raphael Uribe Ruiz (2013); edited by Nick Jones (2014), Queen Mary, University of London
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