At the Movies

Michael Wood

Many critics and viewers have felt that Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s best film since Match Point. The accompanying implication is that the intervening works – seven movies, starting with Scoop and ending at To Rome with Love – are just international chaff, too lightweight to get interested in. If you think, as I do, that such a judgment confuses solemnity with seriousness, that Match Point represents one of the worst dips in Allen’s career, and that the later films were often funny and showed at least flickers of artistic life, you have a bit of explaining to do.

The chief difference between Blue Jasmine and Match Point is that the new film is magnificently acted, where the other wasn’t really acted at all – just phoned in, as they say, and at long distance for good measure. Still, it’s worth comparing the two because they share a major fault. They have the structure and narrative causality of comedy and the doomed tempo of melodrama: plot by Molière, let’s say, mood by some awkward disciple of Dostoevsky. The difference is that if you didn’t go for the mood in Match Point there was nothing there, while Blue Jasmine is so artfully put together that you keep wondering what’s wrong, why the director is constantly setting us up for laughs and taking the chance of laughter away. Maybe the fault is not a fault here, and the trouble lies with us. We can’t laugh at or alongside the characters, and they are either too flat or too nasty to sympathise with.

I think the fault remains: there are too many easy targets and set-ups, but the trouble certainly lingers in the mind, and the film has an extraordinary final scene that any director would be delighted to have shot. Cate Blanchett leaves the apartment in San Francisco where she has been staying. She has quarrelled with her sister, her new romance is over, she has nowhere to go. Her hair is unbrushed and wet from the shower, her posh clothes untidily put on, shirt not properly fastened, its cuffs hanging out of her jacket. She is wearing no make-up and looks about a hundred years old. She sits down on a bench and starts to talk to herself, as she has often done during the movie. Her tone is wondering, reminiscent, as if she was telling an admiring listener about the unbelievably lovely old days. A woman already sitting on the bench looks mildly alarmed, and leaves. Blanchett continues with her story, tilts her head as she seems to hear the music in the soundtrack. The tune is ‘Blue Moon’, one of the sources of the film’s title, and the song that was playing, she has already told us, when she met the man who became her husband and gave her a life of seemingly limitless riches. Of course she doesn’t hear the music, at least not in the soundtrack. The reverse is true, the soundtrack is listening to her, both following the movements of her mind and commenting on those movements. That’s why we so often hear Lizzie Miles singing ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’. In fact, the film is almost exclusively about the Blanchett character’s elusive mentality. The photography, the supporting characters and the music all concentrate on it, which is why so little of what is out there seems to matter. It’s all real enough, sister, husband, sister’s boyfriend, New York, Long Island, San Francisco, but it’s incidental, just the scenery she’s passing through. This is where our trouble arises, and one of many reasons to salute Blanchett’s amazing performance.

Her character has no access to her own mind, any more than we or the other characters in the movie do. What she shows us, in her accent, her tics, her drinking, her impatience, her snobbery, is a sort of saga of denial, the ragged, self-contradicting consciousness of someone who can’t afford to think about what she knows. In these last moments of the film, we have to feel something like sympathy for her, what else would we feel? But her story and her condition, even in this scene, conspire against her. She is in terrible shape but it is the shape she has chosen, and she still can’t acknowledge how she fell into it. She doesn’t understand herself any better than she did before, it’s a breakdown without enlightenment. It’s what we have been seeing since the start of the movie, it just looks worse now.

If this was a work by Dostoevsky or almost any other novelist or filmmaker, some sort of self-understanding would glimmer here, and that would let us in, our sympathy could trickle if not flow towards the character. As it is, we sit there like analysts by the side of a patient we know we shall never help. This is in one sense the very nature of the movies. We can’t ever help anyone on the screen, ‘we see life as it is when we have no part in it,’ as Virginia Woolf said. But many movies pretend very successfully to refuse this nature, and Allen is going out of his way to exploit it.

Francine Prose thinks there is a deep misogyny in this film, and has written eloquently about it. She may be right, if misogyny is the name for what drives a movie that is interested only in its female characters – the sister too (wonderfully played by Sally Hawkins) has moments of something resembling uncaricatured life, while all the men are just stooges or nuisances, opportunities for the women to get in and out of situations – and yet only gives them a hard time. It does feel a bit like persecution. But then the unexaminable life is a great subject, however uncomfortable it makes us.

Jasmine used to be Jeanette, but she moved up in name as well as lifestyle when she got married. She is blue because she is broke. Her husband went to jail for financial fraud (and later hanged himself). Now she has come west to live with her sister Ginger while she starts a new life. She is relentlessly snotty and condescending about the squalor of Ginger’s flat and the lower-class manners of her male friends. She even persuades Ginger to try to do better for herself, against all probability and in flagrant disregard of any human feeling except the desire for social ascent. ‘Better’ turns out to be a married sound engineer as distinct from an eager and available handyman. The engineer is actually ‘worse’ in every respect, unless wearing a jacket rather than a loud shirt carries all other considerations away. Jasmine meanwhile, after an unfortunate brief spell as a dentist’s receptionist (the dentist’s ungainly pass at her, in another movie, would be a fine comic set-piece), seems to have got exceptionally lucky. She meets a handsome young diplomat with a vast new house in Marin County, tells him a pack of lies about herself – her late husband was a surgeon, they had no children, she is a practised interior designer – and is on her way to marrying him when a chance encounter with Ginger’s ex-husband, still resentful about what Jasmine and spouse did with his money, spills enough beans to ruin everything for her, and we are on our way to the scene I have described.

We learn, in Jasmine’s final encounter with her estranged son, whom we have seen fleeing the house in shame at his father’s arrest and disgrace, one or two of the things she is not thinking about. I won’t mention them since they are part of the machinery of the film’s suspense, and it matters that we learn them so late. But none of her flashbacks, until the last one, shows these things, and the flashbacks have filled the film. She does remember or at least represent her husband’s infidelities, but only as instances of what she didn’t see then and can’t properly look at now.

It would be too simple to call her delusional, since her memories are so precise – as precise as if they were not memories at all, since one of the charms of film is that it knows only the present tense. But she is skilfully selective, and the opening scene of the film, again a comic set-piece that isn’t comic, sets her strategy up beautifully. She is on a plane, rigged out in a Chanel jacket and a Hermès scarf – later we will see her several Louis Vuitton suitcases at the baggage reclaim – and she is travelling first-class, because ‘broke’ doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. She is chatting fondly to the lady in the next seat, apparently a relative or a companion. She is remembering the grand life, a lost, bemused look in her eyes, a quiet enthusiasm in her voice. Those were the days, those will always have been the days. The lady nods, responds, asks questions. When the plane lands and Jasmine and the lady collect their bags, the lady’s husband says: ‘Who was that?’ The lady says: ‘I don’t know. I just sat next to her and she talked all the way.’ Confidential recall, it turns out, was mania. It would be funny if it wasn’t so awful. We would feel sorry for her if she hadn’t locked us out.