Blue Jasmine starts the same way that any other Woody Allen film does. Yet that’s where most of the similarities end between his other works, and his greatest film in years. Blue Jasmine shares standard hallmarks of Allen’s writing and direction: characters that start so broad they wouldn’t be out of place in a sketch show, neurotic rich people, and biting wit; yet the trajectory and the tone of the film is so radically different from something like Magic in the Moonlight (potentially his most cookie-cutter film), it’s enthralling.
The differences between Blue Jasmine and Allen’s earlier works are immediately apparent in the visuals. It’s only Allen’s third film in 16:9 aspect ratio – a visual and tonal departure from his classic works. Furthermore, in comparison to films such as Midnight in Paris and Vicky Christina Barcelona, Blue Jasmine has a particularly unromantic view of its main location, showing the shabbier sides of the San Francisco Bay and appearing indifferent to the more affluent areas – there’s no grand ‘Manhattan’ shot, no grand crumbling infrastructure a la the theme park in Annie Hall, just a normal neighbourhood, and a woman who thinks she is above it.
Lacking any of the nostalgia or wistfulness of his earlier films, this is a more jaded Woody Allen. While it seemingly starts as a comedy (indeed, all the pieces are there) it soon becomes clear that this isn’t a wholly laughing matter. Jasmine and her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) have made many people victims of their Ponzi scheme, including her sister, and her sister’s ex-husband. The scope of the collateral damage of Jasmine’s former life is kept just out of our reach, saved until it can make us hurt the most. In the meantime, we see her pointlessly suffer through sexual harassment and various shouting matches of her own making.
Avoiding Allen’s typical tale of the ‘nervous middle-aged man in existential angst’, Blue Jasmine balances two narratives, one focusing on Cate Blanchett’s former rich socialite Jasmine and the other focusing on her sister Ginger (a fantastic Sally Hawkins). The relationship between the two is strained at best, and shows absolutely no sign of improving. Jasmine lived a comfortable existence as a rich housewife to Hal (Alec Baldwin, shadier than ever) while her sister lives more humbly. Honesty seems to mean nothing to Jasmine, as comfort takes priority above all – she avoids situations that require confrontation or physical exertion to the point where she seemingly drifts through life – Blue Jasmine finds her at a point where this is no longer possible for her, and it begins to destroy her. The circumstances in which Jasmine finds herself probably would have been played for some ‘fish out of water’ laughs in any other film, but instead Jasmine is simply bitter, selfish and cruel. She endlessly criticises her sister without even thanking her for her help, she belittles everyone around her, and yet we still pity her.
This is mostly due to Cate Blanchett’s fantastic performance. The film is the greatest showcase for Cate Blanchett this side of Carol, and one of the greatest of her career. Effortlessly subtle and completely engrossed in her role as Jasmine, her performance keeps the character from sliding into total detestability, just about inspiring the minimum amount of pathos from a character who in any other film probably wouldn’t deserve it. Blue Jasmine weaponises Blanchett’s elegant image against us, showing a character who is trying with all her might to maintain this glamour that is falling down around her. Seriously, she’s amazing in this one.
The film’s stunning ending strikes a particularly painful chord as it presents Jasmine’s problems as something unfixable – sending her on a final path of self-destruction through pride in the third act. The devastating final frames of the film are ambiguous and hopeless, bringing Jasmine’s story in the film full-circle. Allen is at his best when he’s exploring outside of the ‘romantic comedy’/’historical romantic’ box, or playing with the formula as he does in things like Annie Hall; and Blue Jasmine is his sharpest script in years. It doesn’t so much play with cinematic conventions as it does with our expectations, taking the tale of the “humbled rich person” and injecting it with a heavy dose of pessimism. Blue Jasmine tells us that it isn’t so easy to change.