Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s tragicomic ode to ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

On a flight back to KL earlier this week, I got to watch Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine. Mr. Allen can rightfully lay claim to being the most prolific director in the world. Since 1969, when he released his second film Take the Money and Run, he has released one film per year, every year till 2013, with the exception of 1970, 1974, 1976 and 1981 (but he released 2 in 1987). That’s 42 movies in 45 years!

Mr. Allen certainly shows no sign of slowing down with age. He already has his next picture Magic in the Moonlight scheduled for release in 2014. And it’s not that he’s just churning out drivel; he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2011’s highly entertaining Midnight in Paris (and was nominated for Best Director as well), making him one of the few artists to receive Oscar nominations in 5 consecutive decades.

Midnight in Paris went on record as being his highest grossing film ever, although that doesn’t take into account ticket price inflation over the past 50 years; when adjusted for inflation, Annie Hall (1977) is still his highest grossing movie, but both Midnight and now Blue Jasmine are in his Top 10. Talk about getting better with age!

Many observers have noted the obvious parallels with A Streetcar Named Desire – fragile upper class socialite reeling from the loss of husband and fortune arrives to stay with poor middle class sister; tries to retain air of sophistication but comes up short against new rough surroundings, particularly her sister’s partner, who takes an intense dislike to her put-on airs.

Elia Kazan’s 1951 film (based on the 1947 Tennessee Williams play) was a very dark affair, ending with Blanche DuBois’ rape and subsequent mental breakdown. Woody Allen retains the same themes, but presents the story as a tragicomedy; his storytelling gives us a chance to laugh (or at least smile knowingly) at the foibles of his characters, without feeling too guilty at being entertained by someone else’s misery. Jasmine is spared the physical brutalization and the rape, but in the end, she shares the same fate as Blanche; when her attempt to begin a new life ends in failure, Jasmine’s world quickly unravels and the film ends with her sitting on a bench talking to herself, with a mental institution seemingly the only possible destination for her.

No actor can ever claim to have dominated a Woody Allen film in all these years past (other than Allen himself in a few of them), as they are all typically ensemble affairs. That streak has just been broken; Cate Blanchett owns this film. I watched her performance with a sort of morbid fascination, in much the same way that one may watch the slow-motion replay of a spectacular car crash on a race track…you already know that the outcome is not going to be good, but you still feel compelled to observe exactly how the disaster unfolds.

Mr. Allen many times carries over actors from his previous films. But in this case, other than Alec Baldwin, he works with a completely new set. Besides Ms. Blanchett, there’s British actress Sally Hawkins who plays Jasmine’s sister and TV actor Bobby Cannavale, as her fiancé Chili, who considers Jasmine’s sophistication an affront to his working-class pride. Michael Stuhlbarg (who headlined the Coen Bros.’ A Serious Man in 2009) is hilarious as a dentist who becomes besotted with Jasmine and comes on to her at work; this is not a matter to be laughed at in real life, but Stuhlbarg is so ridiculous and so pathetic, and Jasmine is such a magnet for losers that I couldn’t help but shake my head in amused disbelief as the situation unfolded. Alec Baldwin produces a typical walk-on performance – viewed in flashbacks – as Jasmine’s suave financial wheeler-dealer husband, who comes to a sticky end. The only actor who gets a straight-forward role is Peter Sarsgaard as the recently widowed diplomat Dwight, who is drawn irresistibly to Jasmine’s charm and sophistication. It’s the abrupt termination of her relationship with Dwight which leads Jasmine into her final dark spiral.

Woody Allen’s genius lies in his ability to present life’s challenges with a light and ironic touch. I wouldn’t have believed that such an approach could work with subject matter like this, but indeed Mr. Allen comes through with flying colours. In a few months, Cate Blanchett will receive her 6th Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second win. She won previously for playing Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese’s The Aviator in 2004, but this performance is in a different league altogether.

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