“You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents,
not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.”
25th Anniversary Facsimile Edition
“Old habits die hard”, so the saying goes. It may be said that here lies one of the explanations for why comedy and tragedy are both so abundand in human existence: our psyches have a tendency to stick to behaviours learnt in the past, while the challenges we have to face are often new and unprecedented. I’m not simply stating the obvious – the “Freudian” thesis about how we’re necessarily “shaped”or “sculpted” by our first childhood experience, when our characters are formed (and deformed…). What I meant to point out is something similar to Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “we look at the present through a rear-view mirror”. Or, as Kierkegaard said it: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine I get the impression a woman who looks at her rearviewmirror with a mixture of nostalgia and disgust, while she drives into the future to see what joys and catastrophes he’s got in store. Jasmine has lost a lot – her husband is dead, her big-money is gone, her son hates her guts… – but she’s still striving to recover what she has lost. What the film does really well is to transport us into a story in which we’re provoked to reflect upon Jasmine’s unfortunate fate, but she’s never merely a victim – she’s also someone who causes herself the disasters because of her unwise choices, her greed and arrogance, her belief that she belongs to a class of people above the rest. She’s diseased with the elite’s myopia: she believes to be part of the Special Caste. It’s a character that wasn’t made for an audience to love, much less idolize: Jasmine is at the same time a comical figure (a caricature of snobbish behaviour, a socialite-poseur who’s all about cheap tricks and bought glamour…), and a tragic one (a flesh-and-bone creature whose Psyche is being shattered to pieces).
The film, it seems to me, feels somewhat closer to the “dramatic” section of Allen’s oeuvre, belonging in the illustrious company of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Match Point, among others. There’s an artistic statement being made here, and, if I hear it well, is an alarm call against a peculiar brand of cultural madness that gets ahold of Jasmine – this character that Cate Blanchett brings to life so magnificently. The character may seem kind of typical of Woody Allen’s immense gallery of made-up-people: one more cheated wife who tries to start her life anew after the wrecking disaster of her marriage. But Blanchett manages to transform this character in something quite unique, into a multi-dimensional fictional creature.
It’s perhaps one of the greatest characters Woody Allen has created since Melinda and Melinda (2005). When Blue Jasmine ended, I had the impression that Woody Allen had achieved – at least for 30 seconds… – something as powerful and emotionally engaging as John Cassevetes did, in several unforgetable scenes, on the masterpiece of cinema A Woman Under The Influence (1974). If, throughout the film, Blanchett appears to be trying her skills on the art of comedy, as the reel rolls we marvel to see madness stepping in, and Blanchett portraying it in her flesh with a performance that would make Gena Rowlands proud.
Jasmine’s a woman that experiences an earthquake on her life, and the film chronicles the process of her downfall (from high-class to unnemployed tramp, from happily-married to a widowed single who’s “available”…). Woody Allen shows us lots of signs of her position in society’s classes: she’s rottenly rich, buys only fancy clothes and dresses all doll-like. To sum things up: she’s Barbie on Zanax. She’s somewhat similar to women in Lolita Pille’s Hell. She’s hooked on a drug called greed (she perhaps calls it “a comfortable life” and believes it can’t be bought with less than a billion dollars.) Woody Allen portrays her with a marvellous attitude of “no mercy”: she’s shown as someone full of vices and neurosis, a pouseur that acts like she’s a big-shot, refusing to acknowledge that she’s no longer part of the social pyramid’s top-floor. She’s a girl who once was rich and now has been thrown into the gutter, but who is still posing as a princess.
And one the most interesting things, in this movie, is the reason that explains Barbie’s downfall from privilege into the commonest of gutter-lives. Jasmine was married for years with a big-shot of Corporate Capitalism. Alec Baldwin’s character is an embodiment of what’s rotten on the behaviour – increasingly questioned in the streets of urban centers worldwide – of Wall Street, banksters, CEOs, and similar sharks and bulls of our present political and economical landscape. After the 2008 crisis and the Ocuppy Wall Street Movement, there seems to be another political wind in the air that’s also being captured in camera by some of the boldest filmmakers in North America. And Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin, it seems to me, were bold, and not so polite, when they portrayed, in Blue Jasmide, a lying-and-cheatin’ figure, which robbed his way into the top. In Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis we had another similar experience of utter disgust while we witnessed the day of a millionaire, in his limousine, while the riots flooded the streets around him, and a funeral procession for a dead rapper was being followed by thousands… Our are messy times. And perhaps they’re bound to get messier.
I really enjoyed Blue Jasmine because of it’s down-to-earth feel, of it’s refusal to indulge in the propaganda of a way-of-life. In fact, Woody Allen’s has used comedy as a weapon here in such a way that surprised me – I wasn’t expecting it, after Midnight in Paris, a movie that belongs to that category I usually call: “too cute to be true.” It may be said that, in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen is not so interested in beauty than in truth: by the end of the movie, we see how much Blanchett’s body and facial expression have lost all that top-model-posing-for-papparazis look of her “glory days”. By the end of the movie, she’s a wreck, a walking disaster, and you’re suspecting she might kill herself with a Zanax overdose or throw herself from the bridge. It’s a great ending, pessimistic as it may seem, and – If you ask me – way better than any happy ending could have been.
It may be said that Woody Allen gives vent to his sarcasm against Jasmine – she’s described as somewhat stupid, un-educated, an economically priviledged woman who never payed no mind to her own education and enlightnement. After her husband is jailed, and all the wealth is gone, she discovers herself not only empoverished in money; her whole identity is shattered and cracked. Her psyche is like a broken mirror. And yet she ventures into the new experiences always looking at the rearviewmirror – a shattered one. Her habits sure die hard: she’s hooked on fancy clothes and expensive jewels, but the money to afford them has been flushed down the toilet by her rich husband (Alec Baldwin), who turned out to be both an excellent money-maker and a criminal (doesn’t this happen quite often?). Now, her plan for survival is this: “to learn about computers and to study interior decoration on-line.” Yeah: I’m quite sure that Allen’s relation to Jasmine has a lot to do with sarcastic remarks about a figure he’s aiming to ridicule.
But that’s not all. Of course Jasmine experiences not only a revearsal of economical fortune, but also a personal tragedy – and this is truly where the merit of Woody Allen’s film lies. Jasmine is an object of sarcasm, ridicule, and disgust; but she also has something almost tragic about her. Because we see her in the process of losing all her previous comforts and securities – both material and emotional. She’s lost much more than money: her family has crumbled apart, her wealth has turned to ashes, her American Dream has revealed its true face: that of a nightmare.
Jasmine, once a wealthy high-class figure of New York’s economical elite, finds herself thrown down the ladder. She discovers she’s been married to a corporate criminal, who could only buy them such an easy-living with money earned by illicit means. And while her husband rots in jail, and finally chooses to cut his miseries short with a rope around his neck, Jasmine moves to San Francisco aiming to start a new life. But old habits die hard. She doesn’t want her new life to be much different than the previous (and privileged) one. So she does what mortals such as we so often do: she won’t learn with experience, and she’ll tread a similar path to the one that has lead her to disaster; she’s gonna commit the same mistake twice. Instead of changing herself and her ways, she tries to follow in the same direction she once took: she wants to go back to her former “happy life”, but is constantly discovering that it’s dead and gone. Her glory days are buried.
But nothing can convince her desire to change. She wants the fancy, wealthy, trés chic lifestyle back. She’s hooked on consuming expensive trash and sparkling jewels, and she’s not gonna refrain from a lying-and-cheating behaviour to get what she wants. She wants to be married to a rich guy again, and when she meets a candidate, well… she doesn’t even bother herself asking: “how did he get so goddamn rich?” He might turn out to be another rich criminal – who knows? But it’s as if she doesn’t care a bit about that. In order to seduce the rich-guy into a marriage proposal, she sets her trap and leads him into it with the aid of an invented past, a fictitious construction of yersterdays that never were actually lived. In other worlds: she’s acting like a pathological liar. She’s selling to another person a falsified image of her own past – but this past won’t stay quietly buried. It will come back to life and demand that its truth must be recognized. That’s a theme that also propels Cronenberg’s narrative in A History of Violence, as I attempted to show on this article.
Jasmine, if she was wise, would have truly learned from experience and changed her route. Instead, she followed the path that Woody Allen so frequently portrays his characters following: the comical and tragic tendency to repeat the same mistakes and also manage to discover ways to make brand-new ones. In mood, Blue Jasmine is quite similar a Coen Brothers’ comedy of errors. But its relevance, it seems to me, lies much more in its psychological insight and its commentary on society, culture and politcs. As I’ve said before, in this movie Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett really achieved, working together, an artistic result that brings to mind some of the best elements in the work of John Cassavetes. Jasmine’s descent into the maesltrom of madness is depicted in a truly multi-dimensional way – she’s deeply wounded by past experiences, and almost choking because of too many traumas, but she’s never only a victim of others peoples’ misdeeds: she’s also a victim of herself.
She’s almost like a junkie, but one who’s hooked on wealth and status and is dying from its withdrawal. And, it seems to me, it’s a cultural madness that Jasmine embodies, one that could be summed up by this tendency of uncontrollable greed for material goods, especially those denoting superiority of class. In Blue Jasmine, I believe Allen has made one statement of impressive power. The film provides what we expect from his witty creativity – smart dialogue, good jokes, fast-paced narrative… – and leaves us astonished at Woody’s capacity to continue crafting such marvellous original screenplays at his already advanced age (he’s brain, born in 1935, is still quite sharp!). Someday, after he’s gone to the grave, and after all the clouds of gossip and scandal settle down, perhaps Woody Allen’s ouevre will be deservingly praised as one of the greatest artistic bodies-of-work that North America’s cinema has produced in the last decades.
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