What strange animal crouches at the bottom of Cate Blanchett’s throat? A languorous one, you’d think, nestling in velvet warmth—or so it sounds during the first moments of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, while the creature is being soothed throughout a flight to San Francisco in a bath of the first-class cabin’s best alcohol. The noise changes, though, at the luggage carousel, where the beast picks up its pace, if not its alto pitch. Suddenly it’s giving off a paradoxically assertive purr, as if it were not just content to reside in this smooth and slim blond host but must insist that it’s satisfied with her.
By the time a taxi has brought Blanchett (or Jasmine, as she’s called here) to an old street of whitewashed three-decker row houses, you can almost hear the animal trying to claw its way up her neck. Although the vernacular architecture to which Allen has delivered her is a beloved emblem of San Francisco—and in reality, if I’m correctly informed, no longer a refuge for renters on a low budget—the crowded starkness of the entrance stoop she discovers, and the presence of storefront businesses with names like El Jazz Caliente, make her hope she’s come to the wrong address. But there’s no escape, either for her or for that thing lodged in her voicebox. Variously baffled, frightened, defiant and angry, it takes to barking at people, warning them to step back from the woman in which it’s trapped. Eventually it even tries to burrow into her chest for protection, bellowing from its cave for another vodka martini.
If I were to revert to literal terms and speak of this indweller as merely an expression of Blanchett’s vocal skill, I would be missing the purpose to which she applies her virtuosity. Blue Jasmine is a study of a formerly well-kept woman who prefers not to know what’s inside her, having paid for years of comfort in the coin of willful ignorance and strenuous self-deception.
This means the film is also, of necessity, a study in the consequences of lying to others, a more common theme in Allen’s work. Match Point (2005) comes to mind, that cautionary tale of wealth and status achieved through fraud. As that film and quite a few others suggest, Allen is not overly optimistic about anyone’s morality, and yet it’s fair to say he seldom dwells on chicanery as a systemic problem of the kind that was exposed in the 2008 financial crisis and the Bernie Madoff affair. In that sense, Blue Jasmine is a departure for him. I can’t credit Allen overmuch for acknowledging, at this late date, a culture of criminality too blatant to ignore; but I admire, and am moved by, his decision to look at his new subject obliquely, through the experience of an enabler of the crimes: a woman who is fully individuated as a character and yet exemplary of the privileged class from which she has now been drummed out.
By means of the flashbacks that both disrupt Jasmine’s thoughts and structure the film, we see scenes of bygone luxury with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), ruler of shell companies with names such as Empire Solutions. In the present, we see Jasmine (or Jeanette, as she was originally known, even her name being a buried relic) come to San Francisco to camp out with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a woman previously dismissed as having settled for being short, brunette and working-class, but who is now useful as a source of shelter. In strides Jasmine, immediately occupying all of the cramped apartment’s conversational space with a nonstop account of what she’s lost to “the government.” (Not even Pap Finn could have chewed the word so bitterly.) She has arrived at Ginger’s with only her Chanel jacket, her Lanvin sweater, her Hermès bag, a simple pearl earring-and-necklace set and a few other salvaged items tucked into a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage. How a person so in ruin could have flown first-class, Ginger doesn’t understand, but the creature in Jasmine’s throat comes up with an answer: “Oh, I just did it.”
Like most of Blue Jasmine, this answer is meant to be a little funny, but not very. Allen directs Blanchett to play the sense of entitlement underlying this response—and the insolence of addressing it to Ginger, a grocery store clerk who is now going to be housing Jasmine—in a way that makes the line less a joke than a piece of sociological observation, of the sort that has always come a little too easily to him. He knows it; he has even apologized for it in the past, notably in the scene in Annie Hall where he meets and immediately offends the woman who will become his first wife, reducing her on sight to a stereotype. Stand-up comedians (Allen was a great one) make their living off of social caricature. Great filmmakers (Allen aspires to be one) have to go deeper—which is why, in the present case, he makes “Oh, I just did it” hint at traits beyond a Hamptons and Fifth Avenue–style carelessness. There is something cracked about it.
As the movie progresses, with Jasmine struggling furiously to right herself and yet hold on to her poses and illusions, the depth of the fissure becomes apparent—and so too does the cribbing that is another frequent aspect of Allen’s work. You do not need to have seen Blanchett onstage in A Streetcar Named Desire (Allen says he did not) to perceive the Blanche DuBois in her Jasmine: the delusional insistence on being her sister’s better, the thrilled animosity toward the man in Ginger’s life (a Stanley figure played by the appropriately hulking Bobby Cannavale), even the desperate hope placed in a gentleman caller (Peter Sarsgaard) who needn’t know too much about her past.
Too obvious either to ignore or to take credit for exposing, Allen’s borrowing in Blue Jasmine perhaps deserves the same defense that Brahms gave the big song in his first symphony, when detractors pointed out that it was highly familiar: “Any ass can see that.” I might justify Allen’s blatant copying simply for the way it allows Blanchett to be the ferocious mistress of a hundred emotional nuances. The voice is only a part of it. On a moment’s notice she can turn herself into a ballerina to please an eligible widower, or a championship wrestler to lay low an insistent suitor. When rising to an occasion, she can smooth her features into a mask of imperturbability, or when descending into turmoil can twist her lips until you’d think the camera had caught her in the midst of a cerebral incident. No movie can be without merit if it gives such opportunities to such an actress. But why is it appropriate—how greatly does it matter—that this magnificent Blanche has been recast as the complacent wife and abandoned victim of a younger, more handsome Bernie Madoff?
The best approach to that question might be oblique, in keeping with Allen’s method in Blue Jasmine. Let me address it by way of another recent release that focuses on thoughtlessly dishonest characters, also exemplary of their milieu, and their enjoyment of unearned luxury: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.
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Based on a report that Nancy Jo Sales wrote for Vanity Fair, The Bling Ring is the more or less true story of five high school kids from the affluent northwest suburbs of Los Angeles who, in 2008 and ‘09, allegedly stole some $3 million in designer clothing and jewelry by breaking into the homes of celebrities. These were apparently crimes of emulation as much as greed, carried out by young people who aspired, if they could not rise to the eminence of their highest models in life, such as Paris Hilton, to at least own their stuff. The curve of potential mockery bends toward infinity, yet Coppola restrains her satirical impulse in The Bling Ring, shaking her head ruefully more often than she snickers.
The one target she finds irresistible among her fictionalized characters is Nicki (Emma Watson), a bubblehead who has been home-schooled on a diet of psycho-spiritual pablum. After her arrest, Nicki instantly disavows her consumerist orgies and, with the help of a team of publicists, issues statements about her commitment to an unspecified philanthropic mission. “Thank you for respecting my privacy,” she drawls in dismissal to the TV crews that she hopes will never go away, her expression so self-righteously deadpan that you might think she herself had respected the privacy of her victims (or that her victims, all creatures of the camera, had a lot of privacy left to violate).
But these moments of acidic humor, which are funnier than any in Blue Jasmine, are an element of contrast in The Bling Ring, as is Watson’s star turn. (She stands out in an ensemble of newcomers for her fame, and also for playing the one character whose realization demands a Blanchett-like mutability.) For the most part, Coppola weaves the film’s texture from the experience of the character who is Nicki’s opposite: Marc (Israel Broussard), the only boy among the thieves. Shy, tentative, gay and too willing to please, he is the voiceover narrator of The Bling Ring and the principal focus of the film’s dominant quality, empathy.
Judgment, as far as Coppola is concerned, can be taken for granted. Laughter is a given, and attempts at understanding would be just so many exercises in social stereotyping. What she wants is to get behind her characters’ eyes, onto the surface of their skin, inside the rhythm of their breathing. That’s the truth you ought to get, she thinks, in a movie based on a true story. So, even while making her most satisfyingly story-driven film to date, Coppola immerses you in scenes long after you’ve absorbed their narrative purpose, deprives you of transitions that would be merely informational, makes the color and intensity of the light feel like a constantly changing, pervasive influence on events, and never puts any music onto the soundtrack that the kids wouldn’t be listening to right then.
Formally, she could not be further from Allen, that devoted practitioner of the evenly lighted, symmetrical composition. He always gives you the establishing shot. When he’s made his point in a scene, he cuts. His usual soundtrack mix of Dixieland, blues and American songbook standards, imposed like a running commentary that’s not always relevant, tells you nothing about the characters but emphatically proclaims the identity of their author. Allen is capable of sympathy, if not empathy; he can even be touching, though not often in his post–Mia Farrow period. But more and more over the years, he has tacitly asserted that he’s in control and on the outside. In Blue Jasmine, he reaches a peak in the dispassion that his severe critics describe as contempt, or even cruelty.
In this case, those critics would be wrong. With Blanchett’s collaboration, Allen has invented a Blanche DuBois without the sexual ache, a Blanche whose one flashback about crawling into bed with her husband is not about getting his body but maintaining her status. Empty of libido, much as the grand residences that are one of the film’s motifs are void of furnishings, she tells anyone who will listen, most of all herself, that what she did for her Madoff, she did for love. We see, though, through Allen’s unpitying view, that it was all for what the money could buy.
Perversely filmed in San Francisco, a city known for bohemianism and the freedom to love, Blue Jasmine is in its chilly heart a portrayal of the American elite as so many high-class prostitutes and johns. As a sociological proposition, that wouldn’t amount to much. As a movie, though, it’s devastating. A beast has got loose.
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The day before a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of having murdered Trayvon Martin, theaters around the country began showing Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, a fictionalized account of the death of a 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, at the hands of a white Bay Area transit policeman in 2009. For better and worse, that timing has made it difficult to think about Fruitvale Station simply as a movie—for better because the historical brevity of black men’s lives, and the relative impunity enjoyed by the nonblacks who end them, is a subject that ought to be continually on the minds of all Americans (even though it seems to have escaped the thoughts of the Zimmerman jurors); for worse because Coogler has done pretty well with this first feature, but ought to be encouraged to try a little harder on the second.
The best thing Coogler did was cast Michael B. Jordan as Oscar and Octavia Spencer as his mother Wanda and surround them with an entirely credible version of life in Oakland’s black community: the physical details precise, the social ambience flowing naturally. Less creditable is the way Coogler’s screenplay seeks to ratchet up the audience’s feelings about the killing by sentimentalizing, and almost sanctifying, Grant’s life. In reality, much of the public outrage about his death was sparked by something far more raw: cellphone videos of the killing. Fruitvale Station incorporates one of these dim, shaky, horrifying pieces of digital eyewitness. Its artlessness shows up the artifice.