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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism