Friday, September 6, 2013

Blanchett's Blanche vs. Allen's Jasmine

As you no doubt have heard, Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine, is one of his best in years.

That doesn't mean, however, that it's an unqualified success; indeed, Jasmine is at least a partial failure. But it's pleasingly complex, and comes loaded with mostly clever dialogue; what's more, it tugs constantly at the viewer's attention, all the way to its sour finish - partly, I think, because the film is basically at odds with itself.

Or rather, it's at odds with its source, and even its star.

That star is Cate Blanchett (above, in a scene from the film), whose turn as the eponymous Jasmine (née Jeanette) is the kind of lead performance that Best Actress Oscars were made for - scrupulously detailed, emotionally devastating, and yet stunningly "brave," as PR flacks would say, in its honesty. Blanchett already has one Oscar on her bookshelf, of course, but it's for a supporting turn (in The Aviator), and it's hard to believe her work for Allen hasn't already made her the frontrunner for another shiny statuette next spring.

Although was her work really for Allen? That's the question you leave the movie mulling. It's no secret the plot of Jasmine is lifted from another author's script - specifically Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, Allen even gestures clumsily toward that masterpiece in his heroine's sobriquet, which crudely tags "jazz" and "New Orleans." But Blanchett, for her part, knows from Streetcar too; she headlined a notable production that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009.

Marlon Brando bares his soul in Streetcar.
But has Blanchett really left her earlier bow as Blanche behind, and is she really onboard with the thematic "transfer" (if you will) that Allen tries to  effect with Jasmine? That point is harder to argue. For Allen has transplanted the back-story of Williams's famously "fragile" Southern belle from the gardens of Belle Reve to the cold canyons of Wall Street, and her delicate homosexual husband, "Allan Grey" (who takes his own life after Blanche destroys his illusions of heterosexuality), has been transformed into a heartily dishonest Bernie-Madoff-like finance hog (Alec Baldwin) who commits suicide in prison only because his house of financial cards has collapsed.

There are other differences 'twixt stage and screen. (Potential spoiler alert!) Allen dodges what many take as the central conflict of Streetcar, between Blanche and her sister's brutish husband, Stanley (played by Brando as archetypal beefcake in the original production, at left), which requires that he demote Stanley in importance while expanding the role of her sister (here "Ginger") - and also demands a new (but under-developed) character - Jasmine's alienated son - to deliver the coup de grâce that pushes Blanche/Jasmine over the edge.

Allen's cast mostly makes these plot variations work (Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale both excel as "Stella" and a sadism-free "Stanley"); but the changes alone hardly convey the essential difference between Williams and Allen, which is at bottom one of sympathy. Williams is clearly in the thrall of his greatest character - indeed, it's not enough to say he sympathized with Blanche; in some ways he was Blanche, personally devoted to poetry but also addicted to rough trade. Blanche thus struggles against her own author's attempts to define her (as he struggled to define himself); she is both sluttish and pure, self-aware and delusional, a complicit victim yet also a determined survivor.

The ramifications of internal contradiction don't really interest Woody Allen, however. To him, Blanche is a type - even a comic type; although to be fair, his clever spin on that type has its own bracingly cynical appeal. Indeed, re-casting Blanche's notorious emotional mist as nothing more than the fumes from Wall Street's meltdown acts as something of a bitch-slap to much of millennial culture. For far too long we've all been playing Blanche, and in the process deluding ourselves - with our TED talks and globalization bullshit - about the kind of financial rough trade we're really attracted to.  In the end, Blanche DuBois just wanted it down and dirty - just as we're a money-grubbing, greedy little gaggle of narcissists leveraging the remnants of empire.

The trouble with Allen's concept, however, is that soon after that first shock of recognition settles, we begin to realize it's reductive. Williams may remorselessly chart Blanche's collapse (and conjure tragedy in the process) - but Allen just wants to punish Jasmine. The curtain falls in Streetcar on Stanley denying his role in Blanche's destruction (which ties us, and Stella, directly to the tragedy), but we have little investment in Jasmine's son, so his questionable decision to reject his mother feels flat - and cheap. Blanche may be partly complicit in her own doom; but for Allen, Jasmine only has herself to blame, which seals the character off from the deep end of dramatic resonance.

And watching Allen's work here, I was reminded not only of how often he has sourced his films in the works of others (the trick dates back at least as far as Love and Death), but also how often a naïvely "doubled" sense of class identity has been operative in his scripts. One of the things that drives this directors' detractors crazy - and I've sometimes been one of them - is the vapid chatter that fills the upper-crust salons of so many of his movies (even some of the better ones, like Hannah and Her Sisters). Of course all that hot air comes in for some critique - but it has only been light critique till now. And Allen has always simultaneously implied - like many an arriviste - that his own moral compass derived from the working-class types he'd left behind (but who sometimes wandered through his perennial mise-en-scène anyway).

But is that pose really credible anymore, particularly as the director gets so much of contemporary working-class life so wrong? (He imagines you have to take a class to learn how to "get online," for instance, while his vision of a supposedly "funky" San Francisco comes off as utterly anodyne.) And to be honest, doesn't the working class deserve a critical stance that's cooler and more probing than the condescending bemusement - generally at their manners and looks - that Allen reliably delivers (rather like Jasmine herself)?

In short, as social critique, Blue Jasmine plays as pointed, but somewhat dishonest; before the long shadow of Streetcar, you could even argue it looks like a cheap shot. Still, next to most other contemporary movies, it looks pretty damned good - what remains of Williams' structure makes the script feel richer than anything Allen has penned in years, and the action is repeatedly lifted from cliché by what must count as his best ensemble in recent memory (if only there was a Best Ensemble Oscar!).

Then there's Blanchett. You can praise Allen for her casting, but not her performance - she's on record that they almost never spoke.  So it's all her (well, maybe part of it's Liv Ullmann, who directed her stage performance). Jasmine may only be a Cliff's Notes version of Blanche, but Blanchett is clearly determined nevertheless to fill her out into a character of classic proportions (and perhaps even theatrical proportions).

"Blanche" meets her "Mitch" in Blue Jasmine.
And you just can't tear your gaze away from the results - even when they seem to be soaring well past the goals of the material. Blanchett is herself undeceived about Jasmine's internal duplicity; her ideas of "self-worth" - like those of many of us - are merely the thinnest gloss on materialist aspiration; thus Blanchett seems to almost gleam when she's in the presence of money (as when she woos Peter Sarsgaard, as Allen's "Mitch," at right), and all but wither when she's not.

But somehow, despite this (superficial) superficiality, Blanchett's Jasmine still registers as - well, not tragic, because Allen won't allow her real self-awareness - but certainly pathetic, in the deep, old-fashioned sense of the word, in that way that wounded animals are pathetic. Blanchett respects her character's suffering utterly, and so it grips us, whatever we may think of her morals. I won't say Jasmine deserved better from Allen - but I do think she deserved more.

So thank God Blanchett was on hand to give it to her.

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