I should like to apologise that my output for the next few weeks is likely to be erratic, as I have family in town and have fewer opportunities for film-watching. I shall be attempting to keep my Godard director focus going, though it may be rather sporadic, even though I’m down to the last few films…
The narrative that tells of a revered filmmaker’s ‘long-awaited return to form’ is a familiar one with plenty of history in film reviewing — it crops up from time to time with respect to Jean-Luc Godard, whose work I’ve been focusing on over the last month — but nowhere is it more commonly heard than with whatever the latest Woody Allen flick is. He churns them out at such a rate even now he’s in his 70s, that inevitably there’s one every few years that is heralded as a return. The critical consensus, it appears, is that Blue Jasmine is one such, seeing Woody return to the States, albeit to the West coast city of San Francisco. I, however, remain solidly unconvinced, though I concede it is a well-made film at least.
On the matter of it being a ‘return to form’, I cannot really comment. I haven’t seen much that Woody’s put out in the last 10-15 years, though I’ve occasionally been tempted. That’s not to say I am some kind of resolutely anti-Allen grump hating on his every endeavour. I enjoyed Everyone Says I Love You (1996) quite a bit, and his early funny stuff is still rather watchable. That said, he has a mean, misanthropic streak in him. I remember it clearly in Deconstructing Harry (1997), an unflattering portrait of the artist, and it’s clear here too. It’s not a matter of happy endings or comedy, it’s a matter of an all-consuming malaise that seems to infect all his characters, a profoundly cynical Weltanschauung that all but overwhelms the very fragile comedies he constructs.
At the heart of Blue Jasmine is Jeanette, more commonly called Jasmine, a widowed New York socialite fallen on hard times, who has come to San Francisco to live with her sister as a desperate measure to reinvent herself, so she says, and because she is quite broke. Both of these reasons are ones we as viewers come to have some doubts about over the course of the film, but what I do not doubt is the excellence of Cate Blanchett’s performance in this role. She is required to affect evidence of profound mental turmoil — the kind of thing that Gena Rowlands did in her husband John Cassavetes‘s films, or that is reminiscent of protagonists in films by Douglas Sirk and Nick Ray in the 1950s, domestic characters driven into dementia by the pressures of the modern world. It’s always a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Blanchett does very well at it.
I am, however, less convinced by the way Allen orchestrates her fine performance. There always seem to be little jokes made at Jasmine’s expense — and there’s plenty of laughter in the auditorium throughout the film, it’s just rarely the uninhibited laughter of gag comedy, but the awkward and pained laughter at someone else’s profound distress. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Allen almost seems to be having fun with Jasmine’s difficulties, and much though she may be the kind of entitled upper-middle-class neurotic New Yorker with whom I should have no sympathies, it’s still troubling to watch her struggle through her situation. There are, as ever, other good actors too — Sally Hawkins as Jasmine’s sister Ginger and Alec Baldwin as her ex-husband Hal are only the most prominent — but their characters are such attenuated screenwriterly conceits that they don’t really seem to live and breathe. They certainly don’t convince as Californians: few of the characters are anything but New York through-and-through, though Ginger’s boyfriends stretch the geography as far as New Jersey, and Bobby Cannavale in particular (playing Chili), with his slicked-back hair, white vest and 50s style, suggests a pastiche of A Steetcar Named Desire (a play to which the plot also has some similarities). Probably most interesting of the lot, though, is Andrew Dice Clay’s brief turn as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie — still a Jersey type, but somehow more believable in his barely-repressed anger at the way his life has turned out — and perhaps the actor’s own drift into semi-obscurity from the heights of his late-80s fame gives his resurrection here a little more pathos.
It’s all put together with the bygone charm of the traditionalist, from its jazz-inflected opening notes and the warm hues of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography, to the clean framing and restrained camerawork. The structure rather effectively interweaves the present storyline in San Francisco with Jasmine’s New York life. And yet, still am I made to feel uneasy by Allen’s jaundiced view of the world, which always has such brittle characters so unequal (or perhaps unmatched) to their environments. Still, I suspect those who already know they love Woody will find a lot to enjoy here. For myself, it’s all a bit too mannered.
Director/Writer Woody Allen; Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe; Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 2 October 2013.