Blue Jasmine: It's not Cate Blanchett's fault that everything wilts in her shade

Ryan Gilbey welcomes the change of scene in Woody Allen's latest film, which hinges entirely on its leading lady's full-blooded performance.

Blue Jasmine (12A)
dir: Woody Allen
 
Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is not a great film, no matter how generous a definition of greatness one might have. But it’s easy to see how it could be mistaken for one when Cate Blanchett gives her finest, most fullblooded performance since The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s not her fault that everything else in the film wilts in her shade. No other character is as rich or rounded as hers.
 
As Jasmine, the regal former wife of the disgraced businessman Hal (Alec Baldwin), she is first seen among the clouds, appropriately enough, given her delusional mental state. She is flying (or fleeing) from New York, where she can no longer afford to live, to lodge with her scrawny sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in San Francisco.
 
When Jasmine starts talking, she doesn’t stop. She jabbers to strangers with the same oblivious, runaway-train momentum with which she addresses her intimates – or, in particularly frazzled instances, herself. And she doesn’t modify what she says according to the listener: while addressing her young nephews, she makes only the mildest of allowances in her monologue (“You must have heard of Prozac and lithium . . .”) before continuing without their assent.
 
It quickly becomes clear that we are watching Cate Blanchett DuBois and that the film is what A Streetcar Named Desire might have looked like if its claws had undergone a manicure – if, say, Stanley Kowalski had been a klutz rather than a brute, hollering not “Stella!” but “Pizza!”. A big difference is the structure of Allen’s film, which interleaves plotlines set in two time frames. Episodes from Jasmine’s luxurious life with Hal in Manhattan are scattered through the main body of the film, which finds her trying to hold on to privilege while all the available evidence tells her it has gone for good.
 
Allen is not above using this structure for cheap irony. He cuts to Jasmine strolling around her high-ceilinged apartment with Hal seconds after she arrives at Ginger’s cramped walk-up. He wastes no time contrasting Ginger’s fond welcome for Jasmine with the elder sister’s clenched mortification when Ginger and her ex-husband visit Manhattan. She flashes paralysed smiles as the tendons thrum in her neck. Her panic alone is sincere.
 
Not all of Allen’s creative choices are suspect. Rather than distinguishing between the two stages of Jasmine’s life, he has plumped for the more interesting option of visual seamlessness: the golden light never changes to alert us of chronological shifts, so that there are several pleasurably disorientating moments when it takes a second to register that Jasmine is back at the country club talking about Harvard. This is a film bathed, even saturated, in yellows and golds of every hue, from the soothing Hamptons sun in the past tense to the ripe bank of supermarket lemons and melons in the present. We’re stuck in Jasmine’s head, that cloud cuckoo land where everything is going to be just fine.
 
It is no shock that Blanchett can convey intensity or mania but she excels also at wringing physical comedy from Jasmine’s discomfort. Embraced by a man to whom she has taken a pre-emptive dislike, she squirms so violently that she almost pops from her chair like a cork from a bottle. Fighting off the sexual advances of her boss, she seems to shape-shift, turning her elongated frame into liquid to slip from his clutches. As a special punchline, she uses his face as leverage to extricate herself.
 
Blue Jasmine is only the second film Allen has made in the US since 2004 but the San Francisco locations bring a geographical frisson missing from his European stopovers. In a film by a director forever associated with the Queensboro Bridge – it would not be a misuse of that overworked word “iconic” to apply it to the poster shot from his 1979 film Manhattan – it is odd to see the Golden Gate Bridge bisecting the background. That earlier location is full of hope (“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world,” says Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby). On the other hand, it is hard to forget, as Jasmine falls apart, that the Golden Gate Bridge has a full-length documentary (The Bridge) devoted to the countless souls who have leapt from its heights in despair.
Cate Blanchett in her former life on Park Avenue. Image: Sony Pictures Classics.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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