Sigmund Freud, a frequently quoted favorite of Woody Allen’s, once said that the criteria for happiness and mental health is gauged by love and work. Unfortunately for Jasmine (Cate Blachett), the perpetually distraught protagonist of Blue Jasmine, both her marriage and status as a New York socialite/housewife were dashed in one fell swoop with the arrest of her crooked, unfaithful businessman husband (Alec Baldwin) and the government liquidation of their vast fortune. The now-penniless and traumatized Jasmine, a kind of Ruth Madoff by way of Blanche DuBois, decides to start over and move cross country to live with her quasi-estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in a “homey” abode in San Francisco.
Once settled, or as settled as a highly anxious person can be, Jasmine still can’t shake the highfalutin attitude she cultivated during her former lifestyle, passively (and sometimes bluntly) criticizing Ginger’s taste in men and claiming that doing clerical work for a dentist is “too menial.” Instead, she idealistically muses the rarefied idea of going back to school to learn about interior design, or continue studying anthropology, a pursuit she abandoned 20 years ago. Allen has anthropology on his mind as well, creating—and then observing—an entitled, stubborn character with inflated life expectations who cannot deal with life in limbo in a place she deems beneath her and refuses to assimilate into.
In the opening scene of Annie Hall, Alvy Singer explains, “I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and examining my life and trying to figure out where did the screw-up come.” Allen constructs Blue Jasmine with a similarly memory-triggered nonlinearity, shifting between Jasmine’s unstable present and her luxurious turned troublesome past. The structure isn’t always fluid, but the flashbacks are often effectively jarring—reflecting the fractured and confused psyche of someone who cannot recover from the loss of her former life. Willful denial is at the center of the film, and Allen flirts with the idea of how dishonest someone has to be to themselves and their loved ones in order to maintain sanity. Jasmine’s obliviousness to her husband’s fiscal criminality and infidelities proves one of her most fatal flaws, and any speculation on her part was often whisked away by a shiny new object of high value. Now in San Francisco, often popping Xanax as if it were over-the-counter ibuprofen, and washing the pills down with a Stoli martini, Jasmine’s lack of investigation and understanding of her surroundings remains. “Jasmine has always had a way of looking in the other direction,” Ginger observes.
With Allen’s occasionally elegant flair for nuance and subtlety having nearly evaporated over the years, it’s clever for him to focus on a purely psychological character study, organically elaborating on his ideas from within instead of applying theses to hollow pawns in a highly calculated, hermetically sealed world a la Match Point. Even if Jasmine’s firmly established struggles with entitlement, aloofness, and delusion are pressed on throughout, Allen successfully builds a rather complete, complex portrait of a woman over the verge of a nervous breakdown; the gravitas of Jasmine’s insecure situation is informed by identifiable, desperate human behaviors as opposed to misogynistic affectations. Allen’s return to America is refreshing as well, allowing him the freedom to focus on the depth of his characters instead of becoming distracted by touristy travelogues built on flimsy scenarios.
But despite its confident supporting performances, Blue Jasmine never accumulates into a layered ensemble piece. Whether intentional or not, the lives of the secondary characters are underdeveloped, often siphoned away by Jasmine’s all-encompassing presence. Ginger, her blue-collar ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), her über-Italian new boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), and Jasmine’s new beau (Peter Sarsgaard) are entirely defined by their clearly pigeonholed socioeconomic status. Allen has thoughtfully dealt with familial tensions and sibling dissimilarities before (namely in Hannah and Her Sisters), but Hawkins’s humble Ginger never fully breaks free of being a mere catalyst for Jasmine’s haughtiness. Of course, if we’re to interpret the film’s perspective from Jasmine’s POV, then these characterizations seem apt, though it’s always apparent that the roles are a bit broadly drawn and that the actors are often called on to speak exposition-laden dialogue, lending the film a certain unevenness whenever Jasmine is off screen.
Allen has admitted in multiple interviews that he cares about writing and casting more than giving his actors direction on set. And Blanchett, an actress almost self-consciously aware of her poise, is extremely well cast here. What could have seemed like an outrageously, irredeemably bitter monster (which Jasmine can be, at times) is rendered into a severely broken soul fueled by a solipsistic pathology that’s full of self-defeating regrets and accrued denial. Blanchett digs at the core of the character and plausibly balances Jasmine’s varied moods: her demure sophistication, her finicky neuroticism, or her spaced-out, inward-looking madness—manifested in scenes where the woman mumbles to herself in public.
Jasmine exhibits a penchant for revisionism, having changed her name and married to a higher caste. It also becomes clearer in the denouement that she’s capable of making drastic decisions without recognizing the reverberations of the consequence for all involved—a point that’s pushed a little too hard with the coincidental reemergence of a few characters from her past.
Allen himself knows a thing or two about establishing early success and having difficulty reconciling a comfortable past with a turbulent present that demands reinvention. And, most surprisingly, the highly concentrated character analysis in Blue Jasmine marks new psychologically bleak territory for the auteur; it’s one of his strongest and most pointed films in over a decade despite mildly falling victim to his recent propensity for clunky narrative development, cynicism, and stereotypical characterizations. Thankfully, with Blue Jasmine, it’s his lead character and not his own filmmaking skills that are stuck on repeat, muttering the same traumatic echoes of a complicated, highly publicized history.