You’d think that Woody Allen would have exorcized it already, after all the complicated romances he’s filmed, of equal parts truth and bitterness. After moving from his early works of farce and confirming his range with tragic romantic comedies in the late 1970s, he let flow a harsh tone to the subject that viewers felt was latent all along. By 1997’s Deconstructing Harry, a vitriolic work of brilliance, the filmmaker had depicted the chaotic world of relationships while, granted, not painting women in the best light. His post turn-of-the-century works continued the style, and some would say took it further, with 2005’s Match Point, a nihilistic reworking of themes in Crimes and Misdemeanors, and 2007’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in which love is chaotic splendor. All the while employing the structure of the well-made play (which he admits has a huge influence), Allen has shown his ability to modify convention into aesthetic statement.
Now working under the shadow of Midnight in Paris (slightly overrated, as one of the simplest scripts he’s ever created), Allen delivers his next commentary on man, woman, and coexistence. Blue Jasmine is as fresh as Vicky Cristina, even if working in familiar territory. A vehicle for Cate Blanchett, who takes on the neurotic Allen surrogate, Jasmine centers on a role cut out for Woody favorite Judy Davis, were she not aged. New Yorker Jasmine (Blanchett), formerly Jeanette, begins the film in flight to stay with her sister in San Francisco. The former’s fall from status had come at the collapse of her husband’s embezzlement empire (played by Alec Baldwin, who’s satisfied and effective in a flat part). Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (an effective Sally Hawkins, once again), is not biological (both were adopted) and of lower status. By featuring characters “below” Allen’s usual upper-middle-class urbanites – Hawkins paired with an endearing Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale, in spite of his character’s menace – we sense Allen freeing himself from his own preoccupation. This rare warmth, not seen since his Small Time Crooks, brings an intimacy that we forget is lacking in Woody’s chic Manhattan apartments. Granted, he seems to share Jasmine’s revulsion at her sister’s apartment, which the former calls “homey” (in the Freudian sense). But the feeling is to Jasmine’s own peril, since her former wealth was never rightfully hers.
Another fresh element here is Allen’s non-linear structure. While the narrative begins with Jasmine post break-up, arriving to California, it later revisits the events that brought her there. Woody cleverly builds a portrait of her marriage and family crumbling just right so that we understand and feel her pain when the film wraps, on an unresolved note well earned. In recent interviews, Woody admits that he continues making films out of guilt – that if he were to follow his true passion, to write novels at his own pace, he’d feel haunted by what he should be doing. Let’s rejoice that his guilt results in such palpable emotions for us all.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.
Read also: Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Blue Jasmine, and the Curious Career of Woody Allen”.