Monday, August 26, 2013

Woman Past the Verge of Nervous Breakdown: BLUE JASMINE

As painful and precise a character study as Woody Allen has ever made, Blue Jasmine is built around an incredible performance by Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine, a New York City socialite whose banker husband’s financial malfeasance resulted in a rare prison sentence for him. The legal proceedings wiped out their collective wealth and now she’s stuck living with her working class sister (Sally Hawkins) in a tiny apartment in San Francisco. Allen deftly cuts between flashbacks that swim with ostentatious wealth – palatial vacation homes, richly decorated ballrooms, apartments with wide spaces filled with elegant bric-a-brac – and her daily struggle to survive post-scandal. We hear that some time before the film’s present day she was found alone in the street babbling to herself. Coming out of a flashback, the camera sometimes finds her in the corner of the frame, muttering and mumbling about the events we’ve just seen. As the film slowly fills in the full picture of the downfall of her riches and her husband, it’s clear that this damaged woman so tenuously restarting her life is a woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s deep in the midst of it, with only fleeting slivers of hope of making it to the other side.

What we have here is a duet between a master filmmaker and a virtuoso performer. Blanchett is remarkably fragile, broken in deeply neurotic ways that run well past the typical Allen type. Here she’s a woman in the middle of a self-deception. Although she’s broke, has barely a cent to her name, she’s stuck in a wealthy state of mind that keeps her realities from sneaking into her consciousness too deeply. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) was a man who kept her in the dark about his business practices, but she was complicit in that lack of information. She enjoyed the rewards too much. In a potent metaphor for recent economic turmoil, he’s caught in the wrongdoings while she’s the one left to scramble with nothing, not even able to fully process what she’s lost. (Of course, that the legal system actually punished this bad banker is a cinematic fantasy.) In one of the opening scenes, she’s complaining to her sister about the conditions of the first class flight that took her to San Francisco. “I thought you said you were broke,” her sister says. “I am!” Jasmine howls, not seeing the contradictions that sit so plainly on the surface of her narrative.

Allen sees them, though, and the film is unsparing as it watches Jasmine struggle. It’s a film that’s scathing and sympathetic, a contradiction that’s reconciled by the push and pull of the film’s elegantly composed, beautifully filmic cinemascope cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe and the raw emotion storming under and cracking through Jasmine’s barely composed exterior. The film is so cleanly cut, crisply crosscut between past and present. It’s gorgeously blocked, stretching across the frame with care. It’s sharply drawn, surrounding the simple story of a woman trying to find some way to put her life back together with a vividly sketched ensemble of strivers that counterbalance the emptiness of her aspirations and vacuousness of the lifestyle she lost.

Her sister’s surrounded by romantic entanglements old and new, an ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay), a current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), and a maybe-new boyfriend (Louis C.K.). They’re all working class guys who draw the scorn of Jasmine. Their personalities clang against the personalities of the wealthy guys she had grown used to. “You settle for the men you think you deserve,” she snaps to her sister. She, on the other hand, sets her sights on a guy (Peter Sarsgaard) who has eyes on climbing a ladder of social influence. Of course she can’t tell him who she really is. Is it better to be honest with a problematic guy you get to know, or dishonest with a guy who remains unproblematic the less you care to know and care to let him know? The answer seems clear.

But Jasmine could care less if she’s doing the right thing, so long as she thinks she is. She has a need to be correct at all times, or at least a need to be seen as correct. She views every slight, no matter how minor, as a personal affront. Any potential career starter she views as beneath her. She wants the results only and wants them now. Told she has to get a job, she sniffs that the only options for a middle-aged college dropout are “menial.” But she doesn’t see herself and her reality in the terms she entertains just long enough to dismiss. She’s an all-American temporarily disadvantaged millionaire waiting for her ship of money to come in. She simply doesn’t know what to do with herself until then. The film doesn’t know what to do with her either, content to show her to us without much else to balance out the cruelty and emotional damage (to herself and others) following her wherever she goes. Allen is content to serve up this character portrait, vivid and wounded, and leave it at that. It’s as invigorating as it is frustrating, a pained fascination with an uncomfortably complicated character worth turning over in one’s mind long after she’s off the screen and the credits have rolled.

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