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Review: Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen.

Woody Allen’s most recent film, Blue Jasmine, proves once again that Allen, even at age 77, is not only our most prolific auteur, but also still one of our most relevant. In an industry where remakes are the norm, Allen manages to use the foundation of a beloved American play and film, A Streetcar Named Desire, to make a film entirely and unmistakably his own by modernizing the setting and story while allowing the essence of the characters made famous by Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation to resonate. Allen retains his reputation as an actor’s director by eliciting performances out of all his cast that rival those of the multiple Oscar-winning ones from the original, and Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Jasmine is unparalleled in recent cinema.

In A Streetcar Named Desire, New Orleans is not just the setting; it’s a character in the story. The city represents everything that protagonist Blanche DuBois associates with failure. When the play was written in 1947, the French Quarter (at least the area near Elysian Fields) was a poor working class area where there was more diversity and much less race and class distinction than in other parts of the South. This progressive, lively, and chaotic backdrop is very much the antithesis of the wealthy plantation upbringing and past life that Blanche still clings to. In Blue Jasmine, the setting is changed to San Francisco, with Manhattan (and Park Avenue in particular) being the “Belle Reve” and only Wasp existence Jasmine knows. This is a fitting update as the status of a penthouse in Manhattan has replaced the elegance of any plantation home in the South. 

New Orleans is regarded as such a cultural gem these days that there’s no way to have it play the same role in modern times. San Francisco, on the other hand, is now widely considered the most liberal and controversial city in the states, so it is a logical setting for Jasmine’s forced move into a small apartment with her modest, loyal, and tacky sister, Ginger to try to start a new life.

Whereas the original play/film takes place entirely within a two room apartment, Allen has split Blue Jasmine up into not only two cities, but into two time periods: Jasmine’s current predicament and her previous high life (shown through flashbacks), with multiple locations in each.

Jasmine’s husband Hal, played by a svelte and charming while smarmy Alec Baldwin, is a Bernie Madoff archetype, who, arrested for insider trading, is the impetus of Jasmine’s mental breakdown. Jasmine has chosen to ignore the unpleasant side of her socialite life for years. She looks the other way when Hal has multiple affairs, and it seems that she may have a better idea of Hal’s illegal business dealings than she lets on. 

However, once the IRS takes all her homes, furs, and jewels, and when Hal hangs himself in prison, Jasmine is left without even a bachelor’s degree to her name. In Streetcar, Blanche is defamed by her husband’s homosexual love affair and subsequent suicide. She then has an affair with her 17 year old student and is ostracized from her town.

Blanche is driven by a need to get remarried in order to re-attain her status and also keep her youth, which is an obsession and delusion she carries so far as to only let herself be seen in dim lighting. In keeping with the modernization of the story, Jasmine’s goal after the ending of the only life she has known  is to continue her education and get a job in order to make something of herself, but this is not her real end game.

Like Blanche, she too really is only vying to find a rich husband to launch her back into society. Both are pariahs, yet both manage to find eligible suitors by lying about their pasts. Whereas Blanche is passionate, Jasmine is more reserved and emotionless, making her a somewhat less sympathetic character than her counterpart. Both are alcoholics; Jasmine has the additional aid of a heavy cocktail of anti-anxiety medications to numb her even more to the cruel world outside of her Park Avenue existence.

A notable variance in the story is the character of Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale, who in a funny and charismatic turn, is the lower class mechanic equivalent to Brando’s Stanley in Streetcar. While he is impassioned, he lacks the animalistic and somewhat abusive, brutish qualities of Stanley and instead exhibits a more accessible modern male trait of being overly sensitive, breaking down in tears at several points throughout the film.

There are also several additional male cast members that Allen adds to break up the insular and staged feeling of the original story. Louis C. K. appears all too briefly as a romantic interest for Ginger. Andrew Dice Clay gives his best performance to date as Ginger’s ex.

Ginger, played by a superb Sally Hawkins, is also given a more layered and fleshy role than Stella, Blanche’s sister in Streetcar, as she has more decisions to make regarding her sister and her lovers past and present. She is also far more colorful in both her wardrobe and demeanor. Allen is well-known for his casting process of simply calling up the actors he wants for each role and never being turned down, and his eclectic and unusual choices here are a triumph of that method. Every actor in the film deserves recognition.

The narrative is a bit uneven at times, but the story is ultimately a character study of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, so it shouldn’t be overly faulted for its lack of a traditional structure. In much the same way that Vivien Leigh was almost unrecognizable as Blanche, a performance that won her an Oscar, Blanchett is brutally honest and fearless as the damaged Jasmine, teetering between upper crust lush and boozed up transient. While in many uncomfortable close-ups Jasmine is shown as sweaty, drunken, shaky, and delusional, Blanchett still manages to balance Jasmine’s breakdown with a strangely sexy aristocratic air of togetherness that is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Allen has also given Jasmine a more devious and dark past than Blanche, which makes her nuanced transformation from Queen Bee to victim wracked with hidden threads of guilt and betrayal. When I was in college, I played Blanche DuBois in a scene for my Acting for Non-Actors class. I went method for the role, drank a bottle of Southern Comfort beforehand, was told by my acting professor that I was the best Blanche she’d ever seen, and then proceeded to pass out cold in my chair before being able to run the scene a second time with notes. I partially blame my New Orleans upbringing and partially blame how daunting the role was, but in any case, to be able to put that sort of performance on film (and to do it without using lots of narcotics) is a feat in itself, and Blanchett, along with her director, will both surely get Oscar nods in 2013.

Reviewed by Arwen Avery Byrd

Arwen Avery Byrd is a New Orleanian, who received her B.A. in film production and interdisciplinary studies from in Chapman University in Orange, CA.  (She entered that program one week before Katrina hit the city.) She currently works for La Hacienda Films in Los Angeles.