Woody Allen has been much praised for the roles he writes for women. Just last week, The New York Times’ David Itzkoff jumped at the opportunity to look back on a whole career of distinctive female characters. It’s certainly a good moment for it. The title role of “Blue Jasmine”, played by Cate Blanchett, is the best that Allen has given to an actress in years (exactly how far back you take that sentiment is entirely up to you). Itzkoff highlights Blanchett’s performance as well as many others, from Diane Keaton’s Oscar-winning Anne Hall, through both legendary turns by Dianne Wiest, and up to the last decade with Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson. It’s quite the collection.
However, in spite of all these unique and fascinating characters, there’s still something rare about “Blue Jasmine" (read our review of the film here). By my count, it is only the third film in the director’s lengthy, lengthy catalog to profile a lone, female protagonist. The other two films in question are “Another Woman” (1987) and “Alice” (1990). To reduce these three leading female characters to a single word would do them a disservice, but let’s try for just a moment. Blanchett’s Jasmine, Gena Rowlands’ Marion and Mia Farrow’s Alice are all wives.
Their husbands are the source of their troubles, each an obstacle to happiness and independence. Marion’s Ken (Ian Holm) is unfulfilling, Alice’s Doug (William Hurt) is a bland philanderer, and Jasmine’s Hal (Alec Baldwin) is a crook. All three women have flashbacks, consider other lovers, and move closer to a new way of life. Yet the odd one out is “Blue Jasmine.” Marion is the intellectual, and her film is an introspective homage to Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.” Alice lives in a light-hearted fantasy of self-discovery. Jasmine is broken. In the late 1980s, Allen was interested in the Manhattan housewife because she was the perfect conduit for his airier European-inflected themes. Now, with his return to a post-Madoff, recession-torn New York City, this figure has become the dynamic, crucial protagonist she perhaps should have been in the first place.
Both Alice and Jasmine begin their stories married to very, very wealthy men at the top of New York City’s Wall Street-inflected upper class. They spend their days shopping and planning parties, living it up on Park Avenue. Their husbands are symbols of the entirety of Manhattan’s business community, far too unformed to be meant as real characters. Moreover, they live their lives as if married to an entire way of life. They stand in for the whole city, its mood and its anxieties. And taken together, they show a massive and unsettling rift in the way Allen has thought about New York for the last 23 years.
“Alice” is pure fantasy. It’s inspired directly by Federico Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits,” a magical riff on faith, romance and loneliness that was also his first color film. Allen’s Upper West Side society was in pretty good shape, and the city becomes a playground for Alice’s emotional journey. She goes to Chinatown to see Dr. Yang, an herbalist who gives her various teas that make her loosen up, encounter ghosts from her past, and become invisible. Her eyes are opened to what she really wants through these potions and mystical experiences, all of which the film embraces as totally reasonable. The happy ending is almost assured. She is allowed to escape from her husband, her wealth, her gossiping friends and her stiff elite lifestyle, perhaps because it was never threatened by anything but her own restlessness.
Two decades later, everything has fallen apart. Jasmine begins the film well after the collapse of her marriage, driven out of New York City by financial collapse and into the arms of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Not only was her husband a cheat to her, but he conned his clients out of untold amounts of money and was eventually (and dramatically) jailed for his crimes. Jasmine now gets flashbacks of her life with him, angry and suspicious, talking to these memories out loud. Her madness, very heavily tinged with the spirit of Tennessee Williams, haunts her completely even though she’s fled New York.
There are moments in “Blue Jasmine” with a staggering similarity to scenes in “Alice.” Both women speak, quite literally, to the ghosts of their past. Yet Alice is allowed to speak to actual ghosts, to really turn invisible. Jasmine is only wrapped up in her memories, losing her grip on reality and talking to herself. In 1990, before the financial industry destroyed the American economy and Bernie Madoff types became our most notorious villains, the ennui of a housewife with a greater sense of herself than her shopping companions could be fodder for light-hearted fun. Alice was able to escape to the Village, able to easily move away from the community she was once married to. Jasmine has no such luxury. She talks to her past but Allen will not allow it to be real, will not grant the fantasy free rein.
“Blue Jasmine” is Allen’s first New York film in almost ten years. As Jordan Hoffman astutely pointed out, it may also be his first film in which New York is the villain. Whatever his discontent may be with the city, he decided the best way to express it was through the portrait of an individual woman, only the third in his long career. There is also something to be said that in a long career of allusion and loose adaptation, instead of turning to Swedish or Italian cinema he took from Williams, Elia Kazan and “A Streetcar Named Desire” for his darkest film in recent years. The notion that an American tragedy is best expressed through the madness of a housewife is an exciting one. Previously a secondary character or the featured role in a European diversion, she is now on center stage. And for Allen, whose weightiest, anxiety-ridden protagonists have always been male New Yorker stand-ins for himself, this is a very intriguing shift.