Like good wine, Woody Allen ages well. At 77, he has the energy of a 20 year old, making a movie every year.
In his career, two great waves of creativity have struck him: One in the 70s with Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) and another beginning with Match Point (2005) set in London, where he abandoned the US for the romantic capitals of Europe. His recent European flirtations include Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) in Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) once again set in London, Midnight in Paris (2011) in Paris, and To Rome, With Love (2012) in Rome.
Producer and sister, Letty Aronson, explains the trans-Atlantic allure this way: “It’s much easier for me to raise money in Europe. Woody has final cut, he has 100 percent control of everything. And the [American] studios don’t want that.”
And now, still in the second wave of creativity, Allen returns to the US with Blue Jasmine (2013), a rich and evocative film set in New York and San Francisco. To my mind, it’s his best film since another sister story, Hannah and her Sisters (l986).
Woody Allen knows sisters as an apple farmer knows apples. He knows their rivalries, their jealousies, their tendencies to wound with a glance, a word, or even an intonation of the voice. He also knows their loyalty and their affection.
The film is funny and sad and smart at the same time. You feel many different emotions while watching but none for very long. It’s fast-paced and ironic, with a lead character (Jasmine played by Cate Blanchett) simultaneously self-critical and self-aggrandizing. The script is tight, the editing seamless.
Allen’s first creative wave in the 70s was noteworthy for its deep probing into human motivation and deception—Freud on the screen, lots of self-interrogation and existential angst. This second wave seems more outer directed, lighter, more whimsical where he combines a child’s imagination – playful, open, exploratory – with a seasoned adult’s technical savvy. What he imagines he can visualize. His imagination is free and unfettered, like Georgia O’Keeffe in her late years.
In Blue Jasmine, you watch the complexities of two sisters and their circles unfold, that of Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Ginger (Sally Hawkins). The film addresses large issues –social class and the recent economic collapse—but does so obliquely, subtly, through the relationships of its characters.
Jasmine has been a queen of Manhattan’s social élite, cocktails and charities, fund-raisers and galleries. Like a Shakespearian tragic hero, she slowly, and painfully, falls to earth.
Her Wall Street money-man Hal (Alex Baldwin) is arrested for fraud. Ginger’s ex, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), also loses his life savings to the same charlatan. Jasmine self-medicates with vodka and Xanax. She talks to herself. And Ginger, in her sister’s judgement, settles for banal stability with the mercurial Chili (Bobby Cannavale).
A distraught Jasmine shows up at her working-class sister’s apartment in San Francisco with the bright lights of Manhattan still in her eyes and the expectation of grandeur. Even though, in her words, she’s penniless, she still managed to fly First Class.
A riches to rags story may seem like a cliché, but it isn’t in the deft hands of Allen and the performative brilliance of Cate Blanchett.
You would need to go back to Meryl Streep for someone of the range and depth of Blanchett. She’s trained in Australian theatre, still the artistic director of the Sidney Theatre Company, and seems to be able to play any role. Sceptical? Take another look at her performance in Babel (2006) and look again at her rendition of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007) where she convincingly plays a moody, über–self-conscious, kinetic, androgynous Dylan in a film that is only memorable because of her performance.
When the camera does a close-up of Jasmine’s face (Blanchett’s face) in the final scene of Blue Jasmine, you see the pain, the confusion, the panic and the longing of a single human being. You also see the larger story of greed, ambition, deception and delusion.