“Allen delineates the gaudy days of the subprime years and the divided nation in its aftermath — one divided by misfortune, political and economic abuses and a sense of cultural and social malaise. With a central character who complements both aisles of the economic divide with her 1% past and Generation Y career struggles and a narrative that captures a virulent political right from the financial elites of Wall Street to the angry blue collar workers of San Francisco, Allen’s film is a bitter complement to our post Lehman-Brothers era.”
With the audacities of the subprime years gaudily channelled in Baz Luhrmann’s 1920s in The Great Gatsby earlier this year and Martin Scorsese soon to bring 1990s Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort’s excesses to the screen in The Wolf of Wall Street, the spectre of the financial crisis is looming heavily in recent Hollywood discourse. Not just in literary adaptations but also the dominant blockbusters of 2012 and 2013 have conveyed moods of economic tumult. In The Dark Knight Rises, a besieged and starved Gotham was at the mercy of a revolutionary, anti-capitalist insurgence suggesting a broad familiarity with movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. Rian Johnson’s economically depressed Midwestern-set crime dystopia in Looper drew attention to a crisis of confidence in America’s heartlands, epitomized in the battleground of Ohio in the 2012 election. Even the more sanguine Iron Man 3, with its flashbacks to Tony Stark’s new millennium partying, reflected a banal national mood in which Bill Clinton’s 2012 Democratic Convention Speech was a sort of apotheosis of nostalgia for the late 1990s.
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine seems to most acerbically define our malaise in this spate of recession-inflected cinema. A return for Allen to darker fare after 2011’s thematically and tonally lighter Midnight In Paris, Blue Jasmine is perhaps his most lugubrious work since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, which dealt with similar themes of depression and deceit. The film begins with Jasmine taking a first-class flight from New York to San Francisco to meet her sister, Ginger. The trip has been prompted by catastrophe. Once a prospering New York socialite married to an ostentatious Wall Street businessman (somewhat robotically named Hal), she has been plummeted into a state of perpetual anxiety and economic paralysis. An FBI arrest for illicit financial activities on the part of her husband sent her life into disarray and forced her to downsize. Arriving in San Francisco and meeting Ginger, she feels fundamentally at odds with her sister’s working-class lifestyle in a low-rent neighbourhood of San Francisco. Adding to the difficulty is Ginger’s combustible boyfriend Chili, who is impatient with Jasmine’s high-class affectations and meandering. Jasmine’s difficulties apply to the world of work as she takes a job as a dentist’s receptionist (a capacity she views with contempt) whilst attending evening computer classes to eventually have skills to be an interior designer, more in keeping with her self-image. The film is punctuated with flashbacks to Jasmine’s life as a New York socialite that explore her eventual decline into mental breakdown and penury.
Critical opinion of Allen’s film has championed its central San Francisco setting as a treatise on America’s class divide, with The New Yorker‘s David Denby claiming the sister’s relationship fitting the “great American divide of class and taste” (Denby, 2013) and Vanity Fair‘sBruce Handy viewing the film as “the story of Jasmine’s further humbling, of upper-class pretension dashing against the rock of working class earthiness” (Handy, 2013). Yet Allen’s story is arguably more immediate and nuanced, his characterization of Jasmine more fluid than on first impressions. Allen’s narrative explicitly frames Jasmine in synch with a surge of disillusionment for university graduates and young unemployed as it becomes clear that her experience of San Francisco will not offer her escape from the despondency of New York. A particularly Generation Y sense of disorientation prevails over her future. Early on in the film, Jasmine mentions her anthropology degree to the abrasive and macho Chili that he lazily confuses with archaeology, disturbing Jasmine over his questions of what she will do. Jasmine is soon disillusioned with the promise of going West, her effete background and meagre resume valueless in the eyes of a virile and aggressively philistine capitalism. This vulnerability is captured in the pace of her work life. Jasmine is unhappy working as a receptionist in dentistry whilst her lofty aspiration of interior design is waiting on a rudimentary computer learning course (one point where she does perhaps break with Generation Y). Her life is cast in the fallout of the Great Recession. She perceives her work as moribund and her goals, like so many on fruitless internships, as taking long to gestate.
The terrifying new world of long-term unemployment and reduced hopes that Jasmine experiences in bohemian San Francisco are consistently paralleled with flashbacks of subprime-oriented New York. The dichotomy of the artistic, cranky brilliance of New York versus the artless populism of the West Coast has been quintessentially Allen and is perhaps most memorably recalled in Alvie Singer’s unhappy journey to Los Angeles in Annie Hall. Allen’s depiction of West Coast life in Blue Jasmine is resolutely negative. Quite perversely, Ginger’s boyfriend Chili is played by Boardwalk Empire star and New Jersey-accented Bobby Cannavale, as if finding a West Coast actor was simply too much for Allen to brace. This geographical and cultural tension is captured in the film’s central relationship between Jasmine and her sister. The scenes taking place in Ginger’s apartment where Jasmine reluctantly dwells are palpably claustrophobic, deftly contrasting the sartorial elegance of Jasmine (regularly adorning her pure white designer coat, as if clinging on to her idea of cultural innocence) with the darkly lit, almost sickly orange walls that have surrounded Ginger’s more frugal life. Jasmine’s experiences of outdoor San Francisco meanwhile are also shown to be banal. Allen’s mise-en-scene is largely confined to the bland and sterile throughout Jasmine’s daily life, only rarely indulging in scenic views of the Pacific and the Golden Gate Bridge and avoiding any traditional tours of the city. The hedonism of Haight-Ashbury is completely absent as Allen’s film takes Jasmine’s moribund daily regime from cramped apartment to a dental reception to her computer course. The once youthful city, a hallmark of the 1960s New Left, has succumbed to a conservatively minded, hard economic reality in Allen’s depressing vision.
Yet Allen doesn’t restrict his vision of social and cultural malaise to Wall Street bashing. Baldwin also evokes the corruption of other economic gurus and elites who failed in their response to the financial crisis. A central plot thread sees Hal embarking on an affair with a French au pair, echoing the callousness of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. This leads to a sucker-punch scene in the third act in which Hal’s arrest was revealed to be due to a report to the FBI by a vengeful Jasmine, devastated to discover the affair. In many ways, this self-destructive moment that precipitates Jasmine’s fall from the 1% mirrors our own helpless emotion and anger at the irresponsibility of the culture of Wall Street. Our own protestations at bank bailouts and fears of resuscitation of the greed culture were canned by the political mainstream in 2008 as both candidates McCain and Obama supported their enactment. Jasmine’s sole principled act after years of collusion with Hal is one that goes punished by the precarious America of Allen’s film. Despite her reveal of the crude economic reality in financial institutions and action against Wall Street avarice, she too must, like so many who protested against the actions of a corrupt financial elite, face the harsh conditions of the Great Recession.
The film’s social mores are also strikingly in synch with the current political landscape, with Allen providing similar delineations of the Great Recession’s social impact. Much has been made of the storyline’s debt to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jasmine resembling Blanche DuBois and Chili having similarities to the emotionally abusive Stanley Kowalski. Critics have strongly affirmed this, with Nick Pinkerton of Sight and Sound noting an affinity between the Williams-style plot of Blue Jasmine and other darkly themed Allen works: “This is Allen’s first Williams cover, though he has done Bergman several times, beginning with 1978’s Interiors, in which Geraldine Page, another Williams belle, became unhinged upon separation with her husband” (Pinkerton, 2013). Time Out: New York‘s Joshua Rothkopf enthusiastically called the film “real Streetcar Named Desire territory” and the tone “hypnotically catastrophic” (Rothkopf, 2013).
Denby, David. “The New Yorker: The Film File: Blue Jasmine.” The New Yorker. 29th July, 2013.
Handy, Bruce. “Movie Review: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is Perhaps his Cruelest Ever Film.”Vanity Fair. 26th July 2013.
Pinkerton, Nick. “Film of the Week: Blue Jasmine.” Sight and Sound, October 2013 issue. 26th September 2013.
Rothkopf, Joshua. “Blue Jasmine: Movie Review.” Time Out: New York. 26th July 2013.