Serenade in Blue: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

In recent years, Woody Allen’s films have oscillated between innovative, creative pieces exploring the human condition, and hedonistic, lazy Hollywood films. Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and, in particular, Midnight in Paris (2011), are endearing portrayals of the flaws and emotional frailty of humanity, while his Whatever Works (2009) and To Rome with Love (2012) lamentably had less than formidable acting and even less inspiration. For the latest in his touristic oeuvre, Allen travels to San Francisco with Cate Blanchett, who portrays upper middle-class Jasmine, a woman whose life unravels as her marriage breaks down and she becomes broke, though she still manages to cart around Louis Vuitton luggage. Drunk, depressed and delusional, Jasmine travels to San Francisco to visit her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) whose ex-husband Augie (played brilliantly by comedian Andrew Dice Clay) expresses nothing but disdain for Jasmine. Jasmine, in turn, views all of Ginger’s partners, including her fiancé Chilli (a fantastic Bobby Cannavale), as lower class trash.  The film jumps back and forth from the past to the present in a popular but intriguing story-telling format to show Jasmine’s subtle progression from wealthy wife to an unhinged lost soul.

Blanchett’s delightfully misanthropic and narcissistic Jasmine pops xanax pills continuously, and she is uncompromising and unapologetic with regards to her disdain for the world and behaviour towards others. In spite of this, she does not come across as a disagreeable character. On the contrary, viewers may pity and feel empathy for Jasmine as she begins to suffer from the aftermath of her nervous breakdown.  She is her own worst enemy, and Allen makes her presence one of absolute destruction. In classic Woody Allen form, there is rarely, if ever, a silver lining. Blanchett is indeed remarkable in the lead role, which shares stark similarities to her role as a drug-addled woman in the Australian film Little Fish (2005), though without the comedic touch, which lifts the film from what would otherwise be something entirely tragic.

One of Allen’s notable strengths is his ability to blend comedy with bleak and brutish reality. Although the film is marketed as a drama, it ultimately comes across as a comedy, with brilliant comedic performances by the entire cast. Even in some of the more tense, awkward or violent scenes, Allen offers a curious dose of comedic relief. As the film progresses, Jasmine becomes even more delusional about her life, and yet one cannot help but empathise, since she is so utterly lost and such a broken creature. What is more, her delusion and erratic behaviour seems to be contagious once she arrives in San Francisco, affecting everyone around her. Blue Jasmine is more tied in with Allen’s late-period works, operating as a tragicomedy par excellence. And, in keeping with his idiosyncratic style, Allen does not offer much in the way of resolve or redemption for his characters. Life is a miserable misfortune, people can be hollow misanthropes, and our existence is otherwise complicated by our own madness. I was fortunate enough to see this in an exclusive screening, at the Palace Verona in Paddington, Sydney. The atmosphere was ripe and the small red room crowded, which added to the shared comedic experience as everyone laughed out loud at the various antics of Allen’s cast. Alec Baldwin is great as the shallow-minded Hal, Jasmine’s cheating husband and finance crook, and their upper middle-class snobbish attitude is brilliantly juxtaposed with Ginger and Augie’s lower class, bohemian vibe. Sally Hawkins is terrific as Ginger, Jasmine’s long-suffering adopted sister who claims to possess the poorest genes out of the two of them. Although both sisters are somewhat self-destructive, Ginger’s mind is indisputably much more secure than Jasmine’s.  Allen previously explored the bond between sisters in his film Hannah and her Sisters (1986), which is often credited as Allen’s best film.

Despite its rather grim subject matter of a woman slowly descending into madness, the film is sufficiently light-hearted. Although it is loyal to Allen’s pessimistic view of reality, the film in part lacks the heart of his earlier works, particularly his most famous films Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). As with The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), we are left to wonder about the fate of the lead character, whose story and life remains ambiguous. The films is also brilliantly interwoven with jazz tunes, opening with Louis Armstrong’s ‘Back O’Town Blues’, while also featuring King Oliver’s ‘Speakeasy Blues’, Jimmy Noone’s ‘Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me’, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Aunt Hagar’s Blues’, and ‘House Party’ as performed by the Mezzrow-Bechet Septet. The song that ties the film together in a melancholic theme is Conal Fowkes’s ‘Blue Moon’, a working metaphor for Jasmine’s initial success and eventual madness.

The film is released in Australia on September 12, 2013.


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