Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen // 2013 // 98 mins

I came quite late to the world of Woody Allen films. I'm hesitant to reveal that the first of his films that I ever saw was Vicky Christina Barcelona, a year after it's release in 2008. However, unlike many I loved that film and have recently made a controlled effort to work my way through some of the directors countless others. I have also been quite lucky, in that by watching all of these films after their initial release I had the benefit of using the reviews of others to steer me towards those films most universally considered his better works. The director has gained attention for his consistent effort to release a new film each year, something that allows the potential for a great new film on a yearly basis, but also means that some of his better films and ideas can suffer from slight underdevelopment in order to meet his self-imposed deadlines.

Blue Jasmine is Allen's 2013 output, a film about a New York socialite who loses everything when her husband is revealed to be a fraudster. She is forced to move to San Francisco to live with her sister and start fresh. Cate Blanchett as Jasmine (née Jeanette) is a pleasure to watch as she fearlessly slips into the designer shoes of a character that is incredibly flawed and regularly unlikeable. Here is a woman whose entire persona is a carefully constructed facade, from the expensive outfits to an accent that recalls to transatlantic tones of 40's icons like Katharine Hepburn (no surprise considering Blanchett's having portrayed the actress in the past). While the actress is sublime as 'Jasmine', it is the moments where the cracks in that socialite mask show and Jeanette is revealed where she really shines. Blanchett's portrayal of a fragile woman crumbling under the pressure of self-inflicted expectations and momentarily losing face is simply magnificent, embodying Allen at his darkest. She owns every one of these scenes and elevates even the weakest pieces of dialogue with her affecting performance.

Balancing out Blanchett's more 'showy' role is Sally Hawkins as Jasmine's sister Ginger. Hawkins' uninhibited and less 'together' character counteracts the uptight, composed Jasmine and provides a refreshing contrast. Ginger has not so much embraced, but learnt to live with the flaws in herself that Jasmine so desperately tries to conceal and Hawkins sincere performance is deserving of just as much attention as Blanchett's. However there is one glaring issue with the construction of these characters. While there is no denying that the film certainly provides two enjoyable and engaging lead female roles in Jasmine and Ginger, the characterisation of these women feels regressive. Throughout the film both women are very much defined by their association with men and neither do very much at all outside of being pursued by, or pursuing male suitors. Furthermore they are both quite explicitly shown as being reliant on a man to achieve happiness. Allen has been criticised for being misogynistic in the past and whether or not that is entirely true there is a definite glimmer of it present in Blue Jasmine's writing.

Having avoided any trailers for the film before going into Blue Jasmine what I found most surprising was how closely the plot resembles that of A Streetcar Named Desire. The similarities to the Tennessee Williams play are, quite frankly staggering, with Jasmine, Ginger and their lovers Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) taking place of Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch respectively. Allen has stated that the concept for the film came from stories his wife has told him of women that she has encountered, but the comparison points between the film and the play are beyond coincidental and the failure to acknowledge this makes the connection all the more problematic.

Potential plagiarism aside the screenplay is host to another flaw that detracts from the films successes. Jasmine's story of starting anew is intercut with scenes from her previous marriage and the events that led to her current situation. The problem is that these scenes offer little more than to flesh out the runtime and provide a role for Alec Baldwin. Very often these scenes are crudely spliced into the film through the use of throwaway lines of dialogue, or even single words, from the current timeline that relate to a crucial moment of Jasmine's past. The technique feels tacked on and lazily written which is disappointing as it distracts from the far more interesting story of Jasmine's new struggles, and as such steals time that could have been better spent developing the more interesting storyline. A spark of true brilliance though comes in the films concluding scene, for which Allen has to be commended; as film endings go it is brave and entirely unforgiving.

Blue Jasmine is an enticing venture into the darker corners of Woody Allen's oeuvre, and one that has resulted in two standout performances from Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins. However the film is often under-developed and sloppily put together, showing that Allen's determination to produce a new film every year is sometimes at the price of a polished final product. Blanchett is mesmerising in a role that is sure to earn her endless praises, and with a great supporting cast elevates a script that is undeserving of the performances that the cast deliver.

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