Woody Allen’s great subject is mendacity, and that’s no laughing matter. There’s barely a chuckle to be had in Blue Jasmine unless the sight of Cate Blanchett knocking back handfuls of Xanax with Stoli chasers tickles your funny bone. It would be an exaggeration to say that Blanchett’s performance is the movie. On the other hand, Blue Jasmine would be unimaginable without her.
In Allen’s best film since the undervalued Match Point, and maybe since Crimes and Misdemeanors (both similarly dark social satires), Blanchett plays Jasmine, once wife to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a Wall Street Ponzi scammer of the Bernie Madoff variety. Now penniless, Jasmine seeks refuge with the only family she has, her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District in a nondescript but conveniently spacious apartment. Deposited on the doorstep by a helpful cabbie, Jasmine, craning her neck with regal confusion, inquires of him, of us, of the universe: “Where exactly am I?”
Where indeed! Allen and editor Alisa Lepselter fluidly shift between alternate worlds, San Francisco in the present tense and New York in the past having equal weight in the narrative. New York was where Jasmine lived a pampered socialite existence, turning a willfully blind eye to her husband’s sexual escapades and financial chicanery. Since Jasmine isn’t dumb and since all her friends knew, at least about the sexual betrayals, it is clear that she is expert at the particular form of mendacity known as disavowal, in which someone refuses to acknowledge to herself that she knows something she cannot help but know. Hence, Jasmine drinks and takes drugs to keep from leaking the knowledge she’s repressed to herself and withheld from everyone else.
By the time she flees to San Francisco to claim the hospitality of the sister whom she betrayed without a second thought (Jasmine encouraged Ginger and her husband to let Hal invest the nest egg they won in the lottery, and that’s how they lost the only solid chunk of change they’d ever have), she is not only in a panic about how she’s going to survive, but whatever fragile sense of self she once had has been fatally damaged by her own lies and the lies of others.
Hawkins and Baldwin make the most of too few scenes as do Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, and Andrew Dice Clay, but it’s Blanchett’s Jasmine on whom Allen lavishes attention, some of it blatantly cruel. If Blanchett were not as great an actor as she is, the choice of placing Mrs. Madoff, as it were, on the rack in the foreground, while Bernie lounges, depressed but debonair in the background, would have been just a tad misogynistic. But Blanchett, working in Gena Rowlands territory (maintaining the bare minimum of her formidable technical control in order to incarnate a woman who is out of control), makes Jasmine fully and dreadfully human.
Watching Jasmine at the end of the film, sitting alone on a park bench, muttering furiously to herself, I thought of an archetype that Blanchett most likely never encountered but Allen probably did: the Russian Lady. Is there a woman who grew up in New York who does not fear, deep down, ending up like those mad homeless women, usually of Eastern European descent, whose incomprehensible chatter could be prophesizing one’s own future? When a tall blonde with patrician features and luminous skin loses her toehold in the golden world whose corruption she conveniently ignored and spirals down into Russian Ladyhood, that is a terrifying spectacle, and, as I said, no laughing matter.