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Non-Review Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s irreverent modernised take on A Streetcar Name Desire. Sure, some of the finer details have been changed to protect the not-quite-innocent. The story is relocated from New Orleans to San Diego. (“This is such a European city,” our lead notes, as if to suggest it isn’t such a significant change.) The character of Stanley Kowalski has been divided across several different supporting characters – the Polish Augie and the car mechanic Chili. (“He’s just another version of Augie,” Jasmine suggests of her sister’s later boyfriend, drawing attention to the fact that they are both other versions of another character.)

Allen plays of the structure and the beats of Tennessee Williams’ hugely iconic play, even playfully branding his Blanche Dubois stand-in as the movie’s “blue” Jasmine French. The result is enjoyable and intriguing, anchored on a fantastic central performance from Cate Blanchett as the Southern belle who might not be quite the victim that she claims to be. As with so many Allen films, there’s a rich ensemble at work here, but Blue Jasmine works beautifully by riffing cleverly on a classic of American theatre.

"... the kindness of strangers..."

“… the kindness of strangers…”

Allen has always had a fascination with jazz. His movies frequently open with white credits on black screens, set to a funky jazz beat. According to popular Hollywood legend, the talented writer/director/actor/etc spends most Oscar nights (including the ones where he is nominated) playing the jazz clarinet at some bar in New York. In many ways, Allen’s approach to his source material here feels like the work of a skilled jazz musician. The melody is recognisable, but the notes have just been shuffled around to create something a bit different and unique.

It’s fun. Allen lifts quite a bit directly from A Streetcar Named Desire. Viewers are likely to recognise a lot of Blanche Dubois in Jasmine French. Both are women who suddenly find themselves in poverty following the dissolution of their family unit – forced to rely on the kindness of siblings that were previously easy enough to ignore. Allen even makes joking reference to the play. When Ginger comes home to find Jasmine in her house, Jasmine rather quickly needs a drink. Holding a used glass, she searches through the apartment, triumphantly declaring “oh! here it is!” as she quick “finds” the self housing the vodka.

A classic of Western literature...

A classic of Western literature…

Allen’s film borrows quite a lot from A Streetcar Named Desire, but playfully so. There’s something teasing in the way that Allen will mimic a beat here or a beat there, only to turn a scene on its head. Chili’s decision to invite the lads around to watch a boxing match evokes the poker game from the play. Some of Jasmine’s romantic entanglements mirror those of Blanche, but in a way that seems a little unexpected. As Jasmine throws a tantrum and tensions in the small apartment reach breaking point, Chili proudly declares to Ginger, “What she said made me real angry.” He quickly adds, “But I kept it inside.”

(While the riff works remarkably well, it does make the viewing somewhat uncomfortable. In particular, those familiar with Williams’ play are liable to spend a lot of the movie dreading certain story beats that would feel quite quite out of place, given the movie’s relatively cheeky and comic tone. There a sense of anxiety about whether or not Allen will mirror particular sequences from the play, and it does give certain scenes a distracting and unnerving undertone. Ironically, I suspect that Blue Jasmine is a film that will be enjoyed a lot easier on a second viewing, without that familiarity hanging over it.)

Piercing commentary...

Piercing commentary…

Of course, to talk about Blue Jasmine purely in terms of A Streetcar Named Desire is to do a massive disservice to Woody Allen. The writer and director is telling his own story, albeit one filtered through a familiar lens. While her character tics and elements of her back story might evoke Blanche Dubois, Jasmine French is defined as her own character, with her own rich history and context. Using the modern economic climate as a springboard, Allen uses Blanche as a window through which he can viciously skewer the upper class.

Jasmine’s husband is played ever-so-charmingly by Alec Baldwin in flash back. Happily spreading the wealth around, Hal seems like a genuinely decent guy. He’s charming and funny, and one of the first things he does is to lecture his son on the value of a social conscience. Later on, we’re told of how he guest-lectured at his son’s college, described as an economic and mathematical genius. He’s the toast of New York high society, which Allen takes a sadistic amount of pleasure in retroactively eviscerating.

Hal's well that ends well...

Hal’s well that ends well…

In the present-day scenes, as Jasmine struggles to acclimatise to her new life, Hal is treated with nothing but contempt and disdain. His ruse has been seen through. The characters peered behind the curtains. Smartly, Allen lays all this out in the opening twenty minutes, rather than trying to conceal Hal’s questionable behaviour or hint at it through flash back. We are told what he was and what he did, and then presented with snapshots of his life as it was – free to make our own judgements.

Allen’s scripts often walk a tightrope, asking us to show both contempt and sympathy towards his characters – often at the same time. It’s a risky manoeuvre. Sometimes it doesn’t pan out, and a few of Allen’s films have suffered because he failed to get the mixture quite right. Jasmine is rendered sympathetic by virtue of her deep-seated psychological issues, and her nervous breakdown. Allen doesn’t allow her to credibly feign complete ignorance to what her husband was doing, but he isn’t oblivious to the fact that she has suffered. Simultaneously, he’s also quite frank about the fact that Jasmine has refused to really learn anything from the experience.

Toast of the town...

Toast of the town…

Cate Blanchett is superb in the role. On a purely technical level, her Southern accent is flawless, but she’s also able to peel back the layers on Jasmine and give us a peek at the woman inside. It’s not pretty, but Blanchett doesn’t flinch. With Allen’s script, the actress is able to fashion Jasmine into a truly complex character, who doesn’t provoke a singular reaction. Our opinion of her – and the opinions of the characters around her – are prone to shift with her moods. It’s a fantastic performance, with Blanchett perfectly hitting every note in Allen’s jazz cover version.

The supporting characters are also well-drawn, even those confined to relatively minor appearances in a film which covers a lot of ground very quickly. Sally Hawkins is great as Jasmine’s sister Ginger, and Peter Saarsgard plays very well against type as a genuinely endearing and decent guy. Louis CK and Bobby Cannavale both do good work in minor roles – Cannavale having a great deal of fun toying with the expectations of a character modelled on Stanley Kowalski.

Drinking it in...

Drinking it in…

Blue Jasmine doesn’t quite hit the highs of Midnight in Paris, which I will boldly name as my personal favourite of Allen’s films. It is, however, a superb piece of work and well worth seeing. It’s a stand-out of the season.

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