With a film released more or less every year since 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen’s output has been undeniably prodigious for a man with allegedly nothing to prove. For the cynical, it’s tempting to cite his cinematic repertoire as no more than persistently revisiting a small pool of pet interests. Freudian psychology and neurosis, promiscuity, a powerless disdain for pseudo-intellectualism, creative blockages in the aftermath of success, Dianne Keaton… the list goes on. Over the last few years his work has, to say the least, met with a mixed critical reception. Over-sentimental 2011 rom-com fantasy Midnight in Paris, for instance, featured Owen Wilson as yet another down-on-his-luck writer, essentially standing in for the man himself before a supporting cohort of unintentional ‘Lost Generation’ caricatures. The film was, remarkably, Allen’s biggest box office success to date, yet felt like a lightweight recapitulation of past releases, flogging absurdity in the name of the fantastic. Indeed, despite the numerous duds in his back catalogue, (who could forget 2012’s To Rome With Love? – oh right, everybody), Woody Allen still retains his status of a significant contemporary filmmaker, revered by subculture and mainstream alike.
With this year’s Blue Jasmine, signifiers of the external remain, yet, this time are unequivocally endearing and elemental in a film that really does deserve a place in the list of Allen’s best. The key, arguably, is balance. Allen’s arsenal of devices and tropes is unmistakable and brilliant, but with such a distinctive repertoire, too much or too little of one previously celebrated theme can merely, unfortunately, translate as no more than a tired misfire.
Blue Jasmine tells the story of an affluent New Yorker who moves into her adoptive sister’s modest San Francisco apartment after an adulterous, professionally fraudulent husband leaves her alone and penniless. It is almost impossible to enter into a discussion about the character of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) without referencing Blanche DuBois, despite Allen’s insistence that any link with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is coincidental; Blanchett even played the character in Liv Ullmann’s recent stage production of Streetcar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Blanchett’s Jasmine is so well acted, however, and so unsettling in her instability that any resemblance to Blanche can only contribute to the integrity of her performance.
Opposite a similarly Streetcar-flavoured duo of the Stanley-esque Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and the Stella-like Ginger (Sally Hawkins), Jasmine takes the audience on a sympathetic roller-coaster as she struggles in a series of misadventures to reconcile the fantasy of her own projections with the reality of her circumstances. Allen deploys subtle detail to help achieve his end, from the botanically allegorical names of Jasmine (a flower) and Ginger (a root) to the masterful portrayal of Jasmine’s daytime drinking: the same camera angle always showing the same cabinet, the same bottle. It all adds to the painful sense of recidivism which permeates the film, further establishing the square-shape-circular-hole dynamic that characterises the futility of Jasmine’s attempts to re-establish her identity.
Blue Jasmine eviscerates even the most convincing delusion of grandeur. The film flows more like a fable than a drama, saturated with parabolic truths in its handling of human interaction and the unpredictable power of bad decisions. Blanchett delivers one of the performances of her career and Sally Hawkins supports with a similarly top-class display. Yes, there are generous helpings of Allen-isms thrown in, from a psychological precariousness worthy of Deconstructing Harry to its standing as yet another filmic ode to New York; but if a little pre-trodden ground leads the way to a new work of this calibre, who’s complaining?