Blue Jasmine: too deep for tears

Imagine Shakespeare’s King Lear as satire or more aptly Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. If that works for you, you will love Woody Allan’s Blue Jasmine. You can readily embrace its tragic comedy.

Who am I to complain, prone to black humour as I am? I confessed in an earlier post (
that Samuel Beckett’s advice – Despair young and never look back- was an article of faith for me.

And yet I do complain.

The movie opens with Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), in the first class cabin of a flight from NYC to San Francisco (a seat she can ill-afford, we later learn) regaling her seatmate with the story of how she met her husband. The band was playing Blue Moon. As it turns out the seatmate can’t wait to be quit of her: “She never stops talking.”

She arrives laden with Louis Vuitton luggage at her sister (Sally Hawkins), Ginger’s, modest flat where she proposes to stay while she finds herself. She blissfully ignores the fact that by doing so, she is preventing GInger’s boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), Chili, from moving in as planned. Gradually flashbacks reveal how Jasmine fell from her Park Avenue/Hamptons height of wealth and privilege to this nadir.

The script is a riff on the tragic Streetcar with Jasmine, Ginger and Chili modeled on Blanche, Stella and Stanley, but it is also a satire. It takes aim at the self-indulgent, spoiled and narcissistic Jasmine, at the shallowness of the wealthy, philanthropic set, and in an equal opportunity way, at the beer-drinking, sports-loving lower class. It is worth noting that both have deplorable taste in art.

Now for the spoilers.

I stumbled out of the theatre traumatized by the last shot of Jasmine’s face. I was half way through a cup of tea before I began denouncing the logical holes in the script.

How believable is it that a woman who signed whatever her husband put in front of her without a glance was able to call up the FBI and cause him to be arrested. (Have you tried turning in anybody? It’s a long and complicated process during which you are questioned like a criminal yourself.) Let’s assume that her impulsive decision was the result of a psychotic break brought on by the sudden discovery of her husband’s (Hal French, played by Alec Baldwin) serial infidelity, not to mention his announcement that he is in love with a teenaged au pair and wants a divorce. Otherwise, nobody could possibly make a decision to turn in the family breadwinner without securing a portion of the ill-gotten gains first.

And is it possible for Jasmine to be quite so reprehensible as to let her sister invest her once-in-a-lifetime lottery windfall of $200,000 in Hal’s Ponzi scheme if she truly understands that’s what it is? Unconscious, willfully blind perhaps but genuinely evil?

Then there is the question of the stepson. He is so humiliated by the revelation of his father’s fraud that he quits Harvard in his final year and disappears. Of course he too turns out to be in San Francisco, selling second-hand musical instruments while his stepmother tries her hand at computer night school and a day job as a lecherous dentist’s receptionist. When Jasmine hunts him down, he tells her he never wants to see her again. How believable is it that such an apparently ethical person would turn so totally against the woman who blew the whistle?

But all of this is mere nitpicking.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine had got in under my defenses. I identified with her profound loss – and very possibly her narcissism. She had lost her role, the elegant settings, the Manhattan apartment, the beach house, that propped her up. She retained some of her couture costumes that might have made the proffered second chance possible if she were not, at heart, so self-destructive.

At the end of Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois is led away by people in “white coats” as she declares that she has always relied on the “kindness of strangers”. Jasmine has no such comfort. That last shot of her sitting on a street bench, homeless, without a purse, her hair wet,her elegant beauty gone and totally absorbed in a conversation with no one, is heartbreaking.

Some things are “too deep for tears”. Maybe this loss, which is being repeated around the world as jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed on and people plummet into the abyss, (sometimes literally) is such a tragedy. Woody Allan realized such downfalls can be borne only by comedy.