For almost 50 years Woody Allen has been making films that explore the existential despair that there is no greater meaning to life beyond immediate human experience and how we define ourselves. Another key theme running throughout Allen’s films is how the management of this fragile state of despair can very easily result in comedy or tragedy depending on the circumstances and outcomes. In Blue Jasmine Allen once again explores these ideas, but with a rigor, sophistication and conviction that has not been present in his career since 2005’s Match Point or even 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. Added to the mix is a post-Global Financial Crisis exploration of class conflict, and notions of privilege and entitlement.
The film begins with a gag about Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) who had been unloading intimate details of her life story to a complete stranger who had mistaken Jasmine’s talking to herself as an invitation for a conversation. Through the awkward social encounter and following scenes it becomes apparent that Jasmine has left a privileged life in New York to move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who lives in San Francisco with her two children. A modern day incarnation of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine is a fading former socialite who is desperately clinging onto a sense of herself that no longer exists. She is both reliant on and resentful of Ginger’s hospitality and attempts to help her.
Jasmine is so accustomed to wealth that she is indifferent to being waited on and has no concept of the value of money. Ginger, on the other hand, has lived a poor lifestyle throughout her adult life, where money is a constant concern. Neither Jasmine nor Ginger are happy with their current situation and both look for ways to become somebody else, but the results are mixed to the extent that by the time the film is coming to a conclusion, the scenario where Jasmine talks to herself in front of complete strangers becomes a moment of tragedy.
In his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda, Allen contrasts a comic telling of a story with a tragic telling of a story by showing two versions of the same story, but one to emphasise comedy and the other to emphasise tragedy. The thin line between comedy and tragedy has been an ongoing fascination for Allen and in Blue Jasmine he depicts this fragile line far more successfully and subtly than he did in Melinda and Melinda. Instead of the approach of defining specific scenes and characters as comic and others being tragic, Blue Jasmine shifts back and forth with impressive ease within scenes. Movements of genuine pathos transition into funny exchanges, without the pathos being compromised, and then back again. These smooth tonal shifts are a remarkable achievement and displays Allen’s mastery over his material. It also significantly helps that all his actors, especially Blanchett and Hawkins, are similarly able to execute the delicate balancing act that is required.
Blue Jasmine also displays Allen’s ongoing development as a filmmaker who for almost a decade has been making films in Europe, away from his beloved New York, the setting of so many of his most significant films. Blue Jasmine brings Allen back to the USA, but setting the film in San Francisco is a notable statement that distances Allen stylistically from his previous American New York-set films. Blue Jasmine even begins with a majestic shot of an airplane flying Jasmine from New York to San Francisco, visually affirming the transition. And while New York is still used as a setting in Blue Jasmine, it is a setting that only exists in the flashback scenes that depict Jasmine’s previous life married to Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin) whose wealth was generated through crooked financial deals. New York is a city of the past and the setting of a lifestyle and version of reality built on fraud.
On the other hand, San Francisco is shot with far more long takes and camera movements than that which are typically used in Allen’s films. There is also a lot of warm light and red tones, giving San Francisco the sensuality of the European cities of Allen’s recent films, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), which like Blue Jasmine was shot by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. The San Francisco setting is also important since it is also the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, which like Blue Jasmine is a film about a woman 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.
The sensual red and orange colour scheme used in so many of the San Francisco shots also allows for some interesting costume choices for Jasmine. In the New York flashbacks she predominantly wears white, suggesting a sense of emptiness or lack of passion. When in San Francisco she begins to wear more earthy colours to suggest at the least the potential for some kind of grounding. However, as her unrealistic ambitions start to crumble, she is drawn back into a world of white. First she reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist office, where the colour scheme is clinical white, and then as she pretends to be an interior designer the spaces she is associated with are similarly characterised by white or dull colours.
The other key colour is the colour referenced in the title: blue. The absence of blue in the film indicates the full extent of Jasmine’s self-delusion. She frequently mentions the song ‘Blue Moon’ being her and Hal’s song. However, the audience never get any sense of the significance of this song other than Jasmine’s increasingly unreliable statements, and the song appears in the film as if it is only something Jasmine hears. The constructed mythology of the song as integral to her sense of self ties in with her overall delusion, which includes turning a blind eye to Hal’s criminal activities; like a gangster’s wife she preferred to enjoy the benefits of his behaviour without any moral burden. And finally, not only is the ‘blue’ of the title absent within the film’s production design, but the second element of the title – her name Jasmine – is also something she has constructed and not her real name.
The idea that the world of the film, as presented to the audience as Jasmine’s idealised world, is built on absent foundations, then fuels the film’s depiction of class differences. Like the couples in Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011), Jasmine and Ginger’s arguments reflect class based resentments and conflict. However, the aspects that define the class differences are exposed as falsities. 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.
The explanation for social inequality that Blue Jasmine ultimately presents is that it all comes down to luck, with a bit of ruthless opportunism to push things along. Jasmine’s comfortable lifestyle in New York was the result of marrying Hal, with the opportunistic element being her blind eye to his fraudulent business dealings. An early irony from early in the film is the revelation that Ginger and her previous husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) also came into some money through the luck of winning the lottery. However, rather than using the money for Augie to start his own business, he and Ginger were convinced by Jasmine and Hal to let Hal invest it and therefore Augie and Ginger lose all the money when Hal is arrested and charged.
The arrogant belief in 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. However, Blue Jasmine also suggests these forms of self-delusion are appealing because, in true Allen fashion, life is presented as essentially meaningless. Without the delusion of happiness for what we have got, we will fall into catatonic despair. This is both hilarious and deeply upsetting, and over the duration of Blue Jasmine the audience feels both sets of emotion, even within the same scenes. And while Jasmine is in so many ways an unlikeable character, Allen’s writing and direction along with Blanchett performance make her continually sympathetic. Blue Jasmine is one of Allen’s cleverest and most compassionate films, making it also one of his greatest.