BLUE JASMINE’s Complex Interior(s)

BLUE JASMINE's Complex Interior(s)

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.

Critics have widely noted that the scenario of Woody Allen’s
latest feature, Blue Jasmine (2013),
is indebted to A Streetcar Named Desire
(1947). However, cinematically, the film owes just as much—if not more—to an
earlier Allen film: the obscure Interiors (1978).

Blue Jasmine’s indebtedness to Streetcar is fairly obvious. The movie depicts what happens when the blustery socialite
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), having fallen on hard times, moves in with her
working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), initiating a series of class
conflicts. What’s more, Blanchett came to the project after a tenure as Blanche
in a Broadway adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s famed drama.

The
connections with Interiors, however, should
be just as apparent. What obscures them is the fact that Interiors was little-seen in its time, and is today
little-remembered. To be fair, it’s a fairly bleak drama that presumably startled
and confused audiences more accustomed to Woody Allen’s nebbish comedy—indeed,
the film was how Allen chose to follow Annie Hall (1977),
after that film’s success afforded him carte blanche.

Interiors certainly has its problems
(which I’ll get to below), but it remains fascinating if for no other reason
than it was Allen’s first attempt at serious drama. We’re more familiar with
that side of Woody today; since then, he’s also made September
(1987), Another Woman (1988),
Crimes and Misdemeanors
(1989), Match Point (2005)—and
now Blue Jasmine. And so it’s high
time to revisit Interiors, and note
the ways in which Blue Jasmine is beholden
to it.

Some of the
broad similarities between Interiors
and Blue Jasmine include:

  • Both films
    are straight dramas, and fairly sober. (There’s no comedic plotline, like
    in Crimes and Misdemeanors.)
  • Allen
    doesn’t appear in either film.
  • Both films
    depict the mental deterioration of their respective protagonists.
  • In Interiors, Eve (Geraldine Page)
    suffers a breakdown after her longtime husband announces his desire for a
    trial separation; she clings to the futile hope that they will reconcile.
    In Blue Jasmine, Jasmine’s collapse
    follows the downfall of her deceitful husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), to whom
    she periodically continues speaking, despite his having hung himself in
    prison.
  • Eve is
    an interior decorator, a job Jasmine aspires to—going so far as to pretend
    to her suitor Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) that she already is one.
  • Both
    films alternate fluidly between past and present action.
  • The overall
    editing styles of both films are similar, as Allen employs many abrupt
    cuts between scenes. Both films, for instance, tend to cut hard on the heels
    of the last line in a scene, often using this as an opportunity to switch
    between the timelines. (Allen first started matching on dialogue like this
    in Annie Hall.)

Additionally, Blue
Jasmine
includes other signs that the ever-introspective Allen is now remembering
his previous work. The amorous dentist for whom Jasmine briefly becomes a receptionist,
Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), bears the same name as the Brooklyn psychologist
in Annie Hall who assures a young
Alvy Singer that there’s no reason to fear an expanding universe. And the
mentally unstable Jasmine is another variation on a familiar Allen archetype
that includes not only Interiors’s
Eve but also Radha Mitchell’s Melinda in Melinda and Melinda
(2004), Christina Ricci’s Amanda in Anything Else
(2003), Mia Farrow’s turns as Hope and Lane in Another Woman and September,
respectively, Dianne Wiest’s Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters
(1986), and, arguably, Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall.

A
willingness to rework “whatever works” is not new in Allen’s cinema; the man
has long been in the habit of basing his films on preexisting material.
Sometimes the influence is explicit: Stardust Memories (1981)
clearly revises Federico Fellini’s (1963), and neither
Match Point nor Crimes and Misdemeanors disguises its debt to Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866). Similarly, Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
cribs a fair amount from Fellini’s La Strada (1954), Husbands and Wives (1992)
steals from Bergman’s TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage
(1973), and September would be
unimaginable without Chekhov’s play Uncle
Vanya
(1897/9). At other times, the inspiration is subtler: Deconstructing Harry
(1997) borrows a portion of its central scenario from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries
(1957), a fact that might be overlooked due to the film’s wealth of material
and concern with metatextuality. (Both films are picaresques in which an older
man travels to receive an award from his former university; furthermore, the
scenes depicting Harry’s fictions are arguably equivalent to Wild Strawberries’s dream sequences.) And
To Rome with Love (2012)
is only loosely inspired by Boccaccio’s 14th-century classic collection
of tales The Decameron. (Its’ working
title was “Bop Decameron.”) Melinda and Melinda
pays homage to My Dinner with Andre
(1981) by including Wallace Shawn among the dinner companions, and takes its
central conceit from Alain Resnais’s 1993 experiment Smoking/No
Smoking
(1993) (or perhaps Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof
Piesiewicz’s The Double Life of
Veronique
, 1991).

Given this,
it’s worth remembering a fascinating argument made by Brad Stevens in a feature
article in the April 2011 Sight &
Sound
(“In Defence of Woody Allen”). There, Stevens claims that all of
Allen’s recent films (those since 2000) are to some extent variations on one
another:

“When viewed as a group, films
that—taken individually—could hardly seem any clearer or less ambiguous in
their intentions begin to feel mysterious and fragmented, diverse parts of a
whole whose contours can be glimpsed only as the various pieces of the puzzle
fall into place.”

In other words, Allen has spent the past ten years basing
his films . . . on his own previous work. Stevens notes that both Small Time Crooks (2000)
and The Curse of the Jade
Scorpion
(2001) feature jewel thefts, while both Vicky Christina
Barcelona
(2008) and Whatever Works (2009)
feature “women who realize they are gifted photographers as soon as they become
part of a ménage à troi.” Even more
compellingly, Stevens reads Scoop (2006) as a comedic reworking of the material that Match Point presents as tragedy: “both
deal explicitly with the class system and involve males who murder women in
order to preserve privileged positions within that system.” Along these lines, Stevens
notes how the seemingly innocuous Melinda
and Melinda
serves as something of a “guide” to reading Allen’s recent
work, serving up tragic and comedic variations of the same story.

All of this
having been said, I wouldn’t want to overlook the substantial differences
between Blue Jasmine and Interiors. Most importantly, Interiors, despite being a beautiful and
intriguing film (especially in the context of Allen’s filmography and career),
is hardly a successful feature. It is for one thing much too derivative of Ingmar
Bergman, especially Persona (1966) and Cries & Whispers
(1972)—the final shot, for instance, feels especially contrived, a blatant copy
of cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s work.

Blue Jasmine wears
its influences more lightly: while the film begins with a scenario taken from
Tennessee Williams, Allen quickly puts his own stamp on the material, and quickly
sets out in his own direction: there is no Stanley Kowalski, no “Stella!”, and both
sisters soon get caught up in romances with other men. Blue Jasmine is also the more successful film in terms of its characterization
and tone. Jasmine and Ginger, et al., are far more complex creations than the
caricatures inhabiting the chilly corridors of Interiors. (The exception of course is Eve; Geraldine Page’s
performance is nuanced and powerful). Moreover, whereas Interiors is marred by the same clunkiness that sometimes haunts Allen’s
dramas (see also September), Blue Jasmine’s dialogue and plotting
recall the subtler scripting on display in Crimes
and Misdemeanors
and Match Point.

For
instance, consider the question of Jasmine’s culpability. She gives the impression
that she never had any knowledge of Hal’s criminal endeavors, or even the capacity
to understand them. Indeed, she routinely protests that when she encouraged Ginger
and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest with Hal, she was simply trying to help
them out. However, after Hal confesses to Jasmine that he has been serially
unfaithful, and what’s more that he intends to marry the French au pair he is
currently seeing, we see Jasmine make a phone call to the FBI, which leads to
his arrest. We might presume that Jasmine offered to testify against her
husband, and therefore knew more than she later lets on. The point is not elaborated
upon, and only Jasmine’s adopted son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) seems to know
this fact, explaining his desire to have no further contact with the woman.

Thus,
Allen’s filmmaking is more subtle than critics commonly recognize— perhaps
distracted by the broad strokes?—as well as more introspective. Above all else,
Allen recognizes that psychological insight is not threatened by artifice. He has
always been comfortable allowing his fictions to be fictions—always fake, and always based on other works, his own and
others. Part of Allen’s value as a writer and as a filmmaker (and I personally
consider him among the highest ranks in both categories) has always stemmed
from his simultaneous pursuit of psychological insight by means of inherited material. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is in many
ways a stereotype, a shallow socialite decked out in Chanel belts and Louis
Vuitton bags; her costuming is anything but subtle. But Allen’s broad signaling
in this regard does not diminish the power of the portrayal. By the end of the
film, Allen and Blanchett & company have constructed a complex character whose
psychological suffering is palpable and unsettling.

Take for
instance the final scene, which is as neat and poetic an ending as could be
hoped for. Throughout the film, Jasmine’s been haunted by strains of “Blue Moon,”
the song that was playing when she first met Hal, who became the source of her
highest highs and her lowest lows. Each time we are given only an instrumental
version. At the end, the song returns, and as Jasmine sits and mumbles to
herself, alone on a park bench, she admits that the words have become “a jumble”
(the film’s last line). But Allen trusts us to remember them:

Blue moon

You saw me standing alone

Without a dream in my heart

Without a love of my own

This is the height of Allen’s artistry on display. Watch how
it happens. The song is redemptive, but we see Jasmine solitary and hopeless,
her last chance at redemption blown. Arguably, she deserves her comeuppance.
But who will be the first among us to insist upon that? Allen, meanwhile, hangs
back and quietly observes. Jasmine sits there and he watches her sitting there,
and as the song continues playing we realize the gentle irony of the movie’s title:
“Blue Jasmine.” This is a very sad ending for such a creature, monstrous though
she may be.

But Jasmine
isn’t a monster, which is precisely
Allen’s point: she’s utterly complex, and none the less so for having been
stitched together out of pieces taken from countless prior protagonists. Woody
Allen both inherited her and made her—that’s the real irony. And he keeps on shooting, and dares us to risk caring.


A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Amazing
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
Giant
Slugs
(Lawrence
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
Big
Other
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

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Comments

Jordan

Great piece, however, I would say that Crimes and Misdemeanors is a tragedy despite the fact that it has a happy ending… if anything that IS the tragedy and that is what makes Allen so impressive – he makes us reconsider our own formulae. Blue Jasmine forces a similar questioning of rules because as you mentioned, Jasmine is a stereotype or caricature, but because of the nuances of the writing and portrayal she is a stereotype or caricature in her own world not ours, which in it's own mysteriously ironic way, actually makes her more real to us.

az

as you note later in your article, his tragedies can be recast as comedies, and vice versa. there IS a comedic plot line in Blue Jasmine, and the difference between the two can be as simple as scoring. many of the interactions between Ginger and her suitors are funny and awkward; at the screening i attended, the audience certainly cringed and snickered at the ham-fisted courtship of Jasmine by the dentist, and Chili's short friend.

which brings us to your assertion that "there is no Stanley Kowalski," although of course there is: he is a combination of Chili and Augie. both are intelligent, incisive, physically violent, and testosterone-fueled. they are both even emotional — the "Stella!" scene is alluded to when Chili breaks down in the greengrocer. thankfully, Allen spared his audience the parallel of Jasmine seducing/being dominated by her sister's man.

even though Blue Jasmine is largely tragic, Allen has cast his film with half a dozen comedic talents. Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins weren't booked for nothing… if not for their nuanced displays of the tragicomic duality in their stand-up and rom-com work. (i'm always curious as to what comedians Allen will put on in his movies, considering his own beginnings.)

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