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

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.