Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Blue Jasmine

To say Blue Jasmine is a ‘return to form’ for director Woody Allen would, of course, be an oversimplification. In between a few duds, he has achieved two critically and commercially successful films within the last five years in the form of Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris.

 But what sets ­Blue Jasmine apart from these two films, and from any film Allen has released for a long time, is a seriousness in tone and topical relevance. Both Vicky Christina Barcelona  and Midnight in Paris were finely acted, funny affairs, but the former was little more than an enjoyable, breezy melodrama quickly forgotten after the credits had rolled, and the latter a lightweight, albeit experimental comedy. 

By contrast, Allen’s latest effort is full of biting satire. The titular character (Cate Blanchett) is a privileged, upper-middle class socialite, who at the start of the film is forced to move in with her substantially less well off sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins),  after her husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) fortune was taken by the government following his arrest for financial fraud.  As an uppity woman used to posh parties and extravagant apartments, the switch in lifestyle naturally comes as a shock to her system, and she often resorts to talking to herself in lengthy monologues that trigger the film’s flashbacks into her affluent past.  

A plot in which a once well off protagonist is plunged into economic crisis will no doubt strike a chord with audiences living through the current recession. Jasmine is a member of the elite classes forced to compete for jobs she would have in the past considered herself too good for, and the confrontation between her and her sister’s fiancé Chili (Booby Cannavale), an auto mechanic, displays the kind of class tension such a climate breeds. 

As well as being a compelling study of class, Blue Jasmine is also something of a feminist work. Jasmine recounts passing through school with straight ‘A’s, buy dropping out of college having been seduced by the glamorous, easy lifestyle offered by marrying Hal. Her demise is a dire warning against women sacrificing their independence and potential for a passive lifestyle as a man’s wife.
Jasmine may be a proud snob who lives and lived in denial of the immoral foundations her former wealth was built upon, but at the same time she is a victim of mistreatment at the hands of men. Her husband is presented without any redeeming features, discouraging her from questioning his reckless financial practice, and while committing to countless affairs with other women. Even men who appear decent on the surface (Louis C. K.’s character Al and Peter Sarsgaard’ David) aren’t quite as they seem, while Chili possesses a Stan Kowalski-esque violent streak. 

The similarities with A Streetcar Named Desire are obvious, and Allen’s film contains acting that can at least be held in the same breath as Marlon Brando’s iconic role. Even Dice Clay (!) puts in a good turn as Ginger’s ex-husband. But it is of course Cate Blanchett who stands out with a performance that will surely be remembered for years to come, and, in the more immediate future, the Oscars next year. Her feat is to make compelling a character who on paper should be loathsome and repellent. Thanks to Blanchett, she is a fascinating amalgam of charismatic, funny and distressing, possessing intricate complexities not often seen on the big screen.  Watching her unravel is at the heart of this film, and is at once intriguing, humorous and, ultimately, troubling.


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