Woody Allen’s movies are always layered with irony. His career began with comedy in genre of slapstick, but now his films are more dramatic and draw laughs through his intelligent, dialogue-heavy scripts. This is why his movies are generally hit or miss. His cerebral, upper-class characters and their academic approach to chatter can scare, turn off or bore some movie-goers. However, with his latest film, Blue Jasmine, he tricks us through comedy and touches, dramatically, on a subject with which most viewers of any demographic can identify, whether from direct or indirect experience: infidelity – dreadful, disheartening and frequent as it is!
To most of us, the word fidelity brings to mind ideas of two lovers, ever present, devoted and indivisible. Yet the many faces of devotion can spread fidelity’s definition, in contrast, across the other interpersonal relationships which comprise the lives of the innately social being that is man: a spouse’s deceit to conceal clandestine assignations, a parent’s harsh neglect of a child’s needs while the child wallows in sad, hopeless solitude, betrayal through espionage, being stabbed in the back by a trusted confidant and perhaps most profoundly, the betrayal of the self – the story that shapes this film.
Allen, as usual, clues us into the movie’s theme immediately. The film’s protagonist, and antagonist in some ways, Jasmine Francis, née Jeanette, introduces herself by telling us that she has changed her name from “Jeanette” because it had no “panache,” an action we quickly learn signifies a lifetime of self-betrayal. Allen suggests that there is a legacy for Jeanette’s behavior. Her life began with a most primary form of infidelity: her biological mother abandoned her at birth.
Jasmine, played exquisitely by the stunning Cate Blanchett, was adopted by parents with aspirations, as was her sister, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins. The two sisters couldn’t be more different, both in physical appearance and in general comportment and personality. They share nothing in common. Family, but with nothing familiar. There is no genuine bond except for a vague sense of obligation to one another.
While the film doesn’t go into the details of the women’s formative history, Ginger intimates a not-so-shiny-happy experience of being an adoptee. She ran away from home at a young age and claims that, while indeed being chosen by her adoptive parents, she was not loved because of her less favorable genes – staging for an ironic, reversal of outcomes for the two women. Allen leads us to believe that, especially intelligent and physically attractive, Jeanette (“Jasmine”) had a full-time job keeping up with her parents’ high standards as the favored child. Her entire persona is built on the fabrication of false achievements, which as an adult persists as the quickest and easiest path to achieving good fortune. As the saying goes, “fake it until you make it,” which Jasmine does almost flawlessly until, of course, the entire house of cards collapses, including the fabric of her mind. At the root of her unraveling is a lifetime of inauthenticity.
In line with the latter-half of Allen’s oeuvre of films (Woody Allen), he once again departs from the constant backdrop of New York City and deposits his main character in San Francisco, where Jasmine is seeking sanctuary with her nearly estranged sister. It is here in the film when Blanchett really soars as an actress. The film mimics Tennessee Williams‘ A Streetcar Named Desire, and the audience witnesses the utter disintegration of mental well-being as Jasmine, post-electroshock therapy (“Edison’s medicine”) and saturated with vodka and lithium, bewilders and worries strangers on the street, and family alike, as she babbles aloud to herself, on a park bench or alone in a room, to intangible people from her past.
A smartly written and brilliantly acted chain of events vividly portrays the continual disintegration of Jasmine’s ego as her less fortunate but slightly more insightful sister ironically begins to succeed on her own, though not without some tumult. Allen’s screenplay goes back and forth from Jasmine’s affluent life as a Park-Avenue housewife with limitless financial resources to her mentally shattered and destitute circumstances after her Ponzi-scheming, adulterous husband is convicted of fraud and then kills himself in prison. Allen casts viewers as sympathetic witnesses to Jasmine’s mistakes, a graceful portrayal of an ungraceful fall from grace, a collision test in slow motion to the tune of Clarence Williams. He gives us the time to consider how her breakdown could have been avoided – if only she possessed a little self-awareness. Instead, Allen, a lifetime patient of psychoanalysis, shows what happens when we turn a blind eye to self-knowledge and fail to take responsibility for who we truly are. Blue Jasmine is as much a powerful study of the price of infidelity as it is about the consequence of a life without self-reflection.
Regardless of all her past mistakes, when Jasmine unexpectedly finds herself in a new romantic relationship that could turn her broken life around, she does what she has always done: fabricates her identity, lies to her fiancé and betrays herself by denying the truth of her past, again – thereby orchestrating her own demise, again.