Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine - a Reader's Review by Daniel Shaw, in American Film, the magazine of the American Film Institute, October 2013
READER REVIEW: BLUE JASMINE
By Daniel Shaw
It once seemed impossible to even think of missing the new Woody Allen film. One after another, they poured out of him, year by year becoming funnier, richer, truer. And then Allen fell in love with Soon Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his long time lover, Mia Farrow, whom he and Farrow had raised as the sister of their biological son Satchel. And many of us fans, even those of us used to the idea of genius artists not living by the rules of the rest of us – were disappointed, if not repulsed and fed up. Allen didn’t seem able to comprehend how he had hurt others; we were hearing his self-pity and his lack of remorse. Suddenly, his narcissism was no longer funny; his foibles were no longer ones with which we could identify. He had gone off the rails, it seemed, and some of the films that followed the golden era with Farrow – DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, for example – just seemed clueless and sour, flat and trivial. Allen didn’t give up, but it seemed for a while like the air had been let out of him and we were getting what appeared to be his emptiness.
Then little by little, Allen started making better films, and now he has made a late masterpiece. With a perfect cast led by the powerful, compelling Cate Blanchett as Jasmine, Allen has gotten real, more than he has in a long time. The story is a mash-up of a lesser-known Joseph Conrad novel, “Chance,” and more obviously, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” – with the Bernard Madoff scandal, his theft and loss of billions of dollars of other people’s money, as the overarching framework. Jasmine has lost, not Belle Reve, but Park Avenue, and with it, every last bit of her prestige. Depending on the kindness of her sister, whose money was also lost in the scandal, she tries and fails to find a way to live as one of the 99 percenters – a world that is as different from her former one percent life as Mars is to Earth.
If in ANNIE HALL, Allen gave us a quick glimpse of a fit, beautiful, wealthy looking couple whose secret to happiness was their shallowness, here Allen gives us the down to earth, gritty, unpretentious working class couple as guten menschen – Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili (a stellar Bobby Cannavale). They are the salt of the earth – vulnerable, imperfect for sure, but sane. By contrast, Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a fabulously wealthy pillar of the community, is a fraud who has financially ruined his victims, gone to jail and hung himself. In flashbacks, we learn what really happened and why Jasmine has lost her mind. Seemingly blind to her husband’s mendacity, it turns out that she knew what she had persuaded herself she didn’t know. She turns her husband in to the FBI, not because she knows of his criminal activities - but because she has finally woken up to his sexual infidelity. Jasmine loved her luxury, her Chanel and Hermès. A child who had been given up for adoption by birth parents she never met, Jasmine eventually found Hal, a man who could take care of her by giving her everything. That kind of security would be hard for anyone to give up, let alone for one who knew abandonment as the very first fact of life.
As much as this film is about dissociated knowledge, moral complexity, and not knowing about inconvenient truths, it is also, perhaps, and paradoxically, a stunning confession from Woody Allen. When Jasmine finally confronts Hal about his affair with a teenage au pair, Hal could be Allen, being confronted by Farrow about his affair with her daughter. Following that hypothesis, Allen shows himself, as Hal, to be morally blind, self-justifying and utterly narcissistic; not the funny, neurotic, and cutely narcissistic Woody we usually get. Confession One.
Confession Two: Toward the end of the film, Jasmine finds her estranged son after she literally bumps into one of her husband’s victims, Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (played superbly by Andrew Dice Clay). Her step-son, like Allen’s real-life son Satchel, who changed his name to Ronan Farrow reportedly to expunge his father from his life, is disgusted by her and wants nothing to do with her. Here, Allen is Jasmine, and what he shows us is not Jasmine’s remorse or her recognition of the horrors her son has had to face because of his parents. He shows us her unabated self-absorption. “But I need you,” she tells her son, who, as Allen’s son has reportedly done to him, tells her to leave him alone and never have anything to do with him again.
In giving us these scenes from the darkest parts of his own life, as his idol Ingmar Bergman also famously did in many of his films, Allen puts before us characters who are morally and mortally compromised. Rather than face the depth of his destructiveness, Hal chooses to commit suicide; and Jasmine succumbs to madness. Punished in the film for the narcissistic sins they have not atoned, they are nevertheless brought to us as works of art, the creation of a great artist realized by great artists, and we must, inexorably, see something of ourselves in them. This may be as close as Allen can get to expiation, to transcending his narcissism; and it may not be close enough for some. But most of us fall somewhere between the pure evil of Hal/Madoff, and the forgiving Ginger, the good woman of San Francisco. In the words of the psychoanalyst, Harry Stack Sullivan, we are all more human than not. Who among us is qualified to cast the first stone? A great work of art, which is what BLUE JASMINE is, doesn’t compensate the victims of the artist, or excuse the artist for his cruelty and his selfishness – but it does, potentially, compel us to turn our eyes into our very souls, there to see and try to come to terms with that which we would prefer not to see, and not to know.
Daniel Shaw, LCSW, is the author of “Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation” and is a psychoanalyst based in New York City and in Nyack, NY.