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.

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett in her former life on Park Avenue. Image: Sony Pictures Classics.
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.