What makes a movie great (or not), pt. 3 *
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
(* For part I see: La migliore offerta; for part II see: The Great Gatsby).
My relationship to Woody Allen’s cinema could very much be compared to a marriage: I have stuck with him for better or for worse, through hits and misses, whether he tediously repeated or deliciously reinvented himself. When critics joined in universal praise of his latest film, the Blue Jasmine, announcing it was his greatest drama since Matchpoint, I was understandably excited.
My expectations were more than met, especially where Blanchett’s performance is concerned (the rest of the cast is also excellent) and Woody Allen’s direction. Moving seamlessly between present and past, Allen managed to make the flashbacks seem less like chunks of action taking place in the past, but rather like a continuous flow of Jasmine’s thoughts, as if the entire movie were taking place in her head. As if, like her, the viewer could not escape the constant loop of guilt, aporia and disbelief that defined her every waking moment.
Nevertheless, the film has a real flaw, one that is only accented by the Matchpoint comparisons: Although both films are heavily indebted to literary predecessors (Matchpoint to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Jasmine to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire), Matchpoint is a thoroughbred drama, its demoralizing and utterly pessimistic worldview remaining consistent from beginning to end. I’m not one to complain over genre transgressions (Nicolas Ray is one of my favorite directors after all), but Blue Jasmine’s problem is not the overlapping of the comic and the dramatic genre. It’s more like Woody Allen could not make up his mind what kind of movie he wanted to make.
This is evident in a number of instances, but nowhere more so than the story of Jasmine herself. She is self-centered, superficial, callous, materialistic; yet, she is also fragile, mentally unstable, broken. So, when her situation is played for laughs, in decidedly uncomfortable scenes such as the one where her boss at his dental practice makes an unwanted sexual advance towards her, I was left perplexed by the director’s intentions and by the inappropriate chuckles of the audience. The same is true for Alec Baldwin’s character, Jasmine’s husband. He brings his effortless charm to the part, and the casual way that he either commits infidelity or conducts his fraudulent business, make it difficult to dislike him. The viewers and Jasmine are equally taken in by him, and Baldwin’s inevitable status as a comic icon further blurs the distinction between comedy and drama.
But Blue Jasmine flounders, not only because the director has not decided what kind of film he wants to make, but also because the writer (also Allen) has not decided what kind of story he wants to tell. At the same time that he manages to make his viewers care for an otherwise unlikeable main character, he undermines the story by having her suffer as a result of unchanging patterns of behavior. When she meets the fairytale prince Peter Sarsgaard (too good to be true, but I was surprised to find out that he was in earnest), she resorts to lies again in an effort to reinvent herself. It’s a matter of time before her lies are revealed, and yet I kept hoping that Jasmine would come clean before it happened. What was the point of that specific plot development? That people never change? That they don’t learn from their mistakes? That the rich are so morally corrupt they are beyond redemption? Does Jasmine even have any redeeming qualities? The man who conjured her in his imagination hardly seemed to think so.
Another problem that arose was the representation of class differences – and here lies my second, and most serious, objection to the film. Yes, the rich were morally corrupt, oblivious as to the origin of their privileges, and devoid of any social responsibility (the reaction of both Jasmine and her husband when her sister’s savings, entrusted to them for investing, were lost, is typical). On the other hand, the poor hardly receive a better treatment. They are gullible, overtly emotional (displaying emotion is a sign of class), and, significantly, where the rich want too much, the poor seem content with too little. Even worse, when Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (a superb Sally Hawkins), tries to follow her advice and look for a man that is, socially speaking, her superior (the defining trait of Louis C.K.’s character), she learns an unpleasant lesson. The seemingly nice man is a liar and a cheat, and, therefore, she is “forced” to return to her fiancé, Bobby Cannavale, the man that Jasmine felt was not good enough for her sister. The whole episode rather plays out like an old fashioned morality tale, and a very bad one at that. Ginger is symbolically punished for exhibiting signs of upward social mobility, and order is restored only when everyone returns in their respective places.
That this place should be a solitary bench for Jasmine struck me as particularly cruel. Destroying his heroine so completely, with no glimmer of future hope, ran contrary to the light comedic tone that shone through several times during the film (a direct result of the problematic association of drama and comedy), and invalidated all of Jasmine’s efforts in retrospect as dishonest and pointless. While the end of Matchpoint was the perfect conclusion to a dark tale of crime with no punishment (the other great literary reference of that film), Jasmine‘s final cut finding her lost to everyone except the inescapable ghost of her past, came as a slap in the face of anyone who dared to hope that change, social or personal, is possible.