Woody Allen has carved a long career out of psychoanalyzing characters’ neuroses, illnesses, and mental obstacles. More often than not, it’s been a potent mixture of affecting drama and self-aggrandizing humor in keeping with Allen’s own sense of himself, and he’s often toyed with the idea of our perception being our reality.
In recent years, that exploration of reality has gotten more and more literal, particularly in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, which found a screenwriter turned author traveling through time while searching for inspiration in his own life. While that film used the question of reality to further the protagonist’s own positive growth, in Blue Jasmine, Allen turns completely inward to observe a life spiraling out of control like an insect circling the drain, waiting for someone to finally just flush it down.
We’re introduced to Jasmine, a New York housewife who has lost everything in her life of luxury and social snobbery. She’s telling her life story to a stranger she met on her plane to San Francisco, who later explains to her husband that Jasmine just started talking to herself at one point, lacking the courage to alert her to this. It’s here that we get our first real insight into who Jasmine is, or who she has become. She’s so used to just telling this kind of story to people at parties and gatherings with the kind of elegant confidence that dissuades anyone from ignoring her that she can’t even tell when the conversation wasn’t particularly welcome to begin with. But that illusion is only the tip of the iceberg, there are far more troubling issues at play here.
Turning away from the usual focus of the intellectuals of New York, Allen decides to focus on the middle class of San Francisco here, and doesn’t go for the usual fish out of water romp that might be expected from the sort of premise at hand. We’re not here to watch Jasmine’s silly antics as she tries to adjust to a life of lesser means, but rather to observe her struggle to get her life back on track after losing everything. Sure, there are plenty of moments of wryly-observed humor as Jasmine is faced with socializing with her sister and her blue-collar boyfriend, but nothing falls into cliché just to get laughs. Instead, Allen crafts a dark character study of a woman losing grips on her own reality, both internally and externally, as she is constantly pushed to the verge of another nervous break.
Are we then to sympathize with her? Surely there are moments where she deserves it. Her life has been torn apart by her scumbag former husband, her new boss sexually assaults her, and she constantly finds herself wandering through the recesses of her mind, losing herself more and more with each passing episode. But it’s not that easy. Jasmine verbally abuses her sister and her boyfriend, constantly trying to pit them against one another because she feels so convicted that he’s not worth her sister’s time, and she even feels compelled to completely fabricate her identity to a man she comes to fall for and discuss marriage with, if only because she feels so insecure about her own life’s trajectory that she couldn’t possibly expect this man to understand otherwise.
It’s not hard to see why Allen decides then to play with chronology in the film, each time placing us within Jasmine’s mind as she retreats into the memory of key moments of her life, brought back to the present moment each time usually by bystanders calling attention to the fact that she’s talking to herself and staring off into space, something the stranger on the plane didn’t have the courage to do.
Casting Cate Blanchett in the role succeeds as a stroke of genius. Who else can embody this level of sheer elegance while also coming completely unhinged? In what may be her best performance to date in a long career of any number of roles that would define an actor, Blanchett pushes her abilities to the limit, shifting from nervous wreck to delusional housewife and back to a train-wreck wasted on pills and vodka martinis with such nuance that never once gets into histrionics.
After much struggle, Blue Jasmine finally just decides to flush its lead down the drain. There’s no crawling out of the bowl for her, and it’s perhaps a more merciful end to let to retreat fully into her delusions than to constantly fight against them. Ending on a note completely in keeping with the character, Allen lets this worst-case scenario come to its inevitable conclusion, but not without first having made his most intricately directed and written film in 20 years.