As human beings, we’d like to assume we’re equipped to cope with emotional trauma—but we’re not. Hell, we’d like to think we’re equipped to deal with the troubles that plague our everyday existence, and yet, we’re certainly not. We may not find ourselves with “saliva dribbling out of our mouths wandering into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism,” or washed away on Xanax audibly reenacting old memories to ourselves in public, but life is hard—and for the neurotic and anxiety-ridden, terribly so. However, there’s always comedy to be found even in the darkest moments and it’s the ability to expose yourself to that, which helps takes a small burden off the weight of existence. And if there’s one filmmaker who has always shown us the difficulties of living with a mind that never stops running—as if being chased by a large, hairy irregular verb—it’s Woody Allen.
For nearly half a century now, his films have possessed an emotional and psychological vulnerability that work through his own past and his own neuroses, turning his movies into a means of therapy—not only for himself but for those audience members that truly invest in his work. There’s a romantic magic and witty spirit of playfulness that pervades even his most serious films, and whether it’s Annie Hall or Midnight in Paris, they serve as an exercise in psychoanalytic release—providing a roadmap to weave through life, love, and an array of disturbed interpersonal relationships. Even when Allen himself is absent from the screen, his presence is always impressed upon his characters—be they male or female—leaving his auteuristic stamp embedded between the words.
With his latest summer film, Blue Jasmine, Allen delivers his weightiest film in years—putting to bed the shallow, slight nature of his previous work, To Rome With Love. Whereas my main argument with the latter rests heavily in his flimsy, two-dimensional portrayal of female characters, with Blue Jasmine, Allen has written a character ferocious and full of force, allowing Cate Blanchett to deliver one of the best performances of her career. From her opening line of dialogue spoken to a kind, elderly stranger on a flight to San Francisco, you see Blanchett has completely vaporized into the skin of Jasmine—tear-stained eyes, anxious cadence, and all—fully sunken into the character’s fractured psyche. In the way that you felt exhausted—both physically and emotionally—after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—the actor’s stamina in the role a marvel to watch—I left my screening of Blue Jasmine feeling more shaky and distressed than when I entered, my own anxiety and emotions unraveled by Blanchett’s bewitching performance.
Like a destructive force of nature that waltzes in and sucks the air out of the room, Blue Jasmine tells the story of a woman completely in the throws of a nervous breakdown. After losing her husband, her fortune, and any sense of security, Jasmine goes out west to San Francisco to move in with her adopted sister, Ginger (played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins). As a broken-down New York socialite cast into a middle-class world populated with “losers” she doesn’t find worthy of her time, Jasmine attempts to assimilate to circumstances but finds herself trapped by her own fantasies. After changing her name from Jeanette to Jasmine in college, she re-imagined a life for herself, elevating her place in society and relying on the kindness of rich men to aide in her fantastical delusions.
With a supporting cast of Andrew Dice Clay (as the tough blue-collar ex-husband of Ginger), Louis CK (as the seemingly romantic side-jawn of Ginger), Bobby Cannavale (the brutish yet vulnerable boyfriend of Ginger), and Peter Sarasgaard (Jasmine’s unsuspecting and ambitious boyfriend), the film lacks Allen’s typical sense of romantic flair and swaps it for a substantial and darker sense of emotion. There’s no fourth wall breaking, no slapstick, no giddy romance—even the romances in the film seem slight and tragic in comparison to the greater weight of existential and psychological unrest. It’s a colder, bitterer pill of a film from Allen than we’ve seen in recent years, and as it cuts back and forth from Jasmine’s fruitful past to her desolate present, we see how one person’s life can spiral down into oblivion as the agent of her own disaster and that of those around her.