In his 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” Arthur Miller defines tragedy as a crisis of “personal dignity.” Tragedy, he says, is about our “underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.”
I was thinking of this classic essay as I watched “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen’s new film. “Blue Jasmine” tells the story of Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), a Manhattan socialite who is very much displaced. When we first see Jasmine, she is standing on a San Francisco sidewalk toting Louis Vuitton luggage and looking utterly discombobulated. “Where am I, exactly?” she asks. The question is literal (she doesn’t know San Francisco very well) but also reflects her existential disaster (she’s lost all sense of her place in the world).
Jasmine is in San Francisco because she’s moving in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine’s fall from Manhattan high-society is a fable for our times. Her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) is a successful financier and, while times are good, the two spend their days lounging on sundecks in the Hamptons, hosting parties in beautifully appointed rooms, and debating the merits of different brands of private plane. Alas, Hal turns out to be a Madoff-esque crook and ends up in jail.
When the government confiscates all of Hal’s ill-gotten gains, Jasmine is left bereft of everything that gave her life meaning: money, status, her morning Pilates class. Shattered, she retreats to her sister’s apartment in San Francisco to piece her life back together. The Mission district of San Francisco is portrayed here as a blue-collar, rough-and-tumble foil for Manhattan. It’s neither here nor there but in the Mission as I know it the biggest danger is that you might overpay for a jar of artisanal Mayonnaise (small-batch, of course).
Theater people will recognize the film as an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire. Jasmine, like Blanche Dubois, is a quivering wreck, flitting through each scene like a fatally damaged butterfly. The role of Stanley Kowalski is shared by two blue-collar lugs that her sister Ginger dates: Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and Chili (Bobby Canavale). Both are brilliant casting choices. Dice Clay’s final monologue is a revelation, so good that you wonder if you’re really watching that Andrew Dice Clay.
The real star of the film, though, is Cate Blanchett, who steals literally every scene she is in. She’s almost too good for this film. There are many scenes, or individual lines, where Woody Allen has written the script in his breezy, intellectual style and Cate Blanchett just demolishes the levity like a wrecking ball. Blanchett is intensely attuned to her emotional core. She can tap into it and produce a thousand shades of anxiety or sadness at the drop of a hat. Woody Allen’s script has Jasmine frequently self-medicating with Xanax and vodka, for instance, but Blanchett expresses the entirety of Jasmine’s pain and repression with one nervous smile.
Ultimately, the film does diverge a little from the spirit of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” At the end of “Streetcar,” Blanche is defeated by Stanley and his cruel realism; we don’t necessarily side with Blanche and her penchant for fantasy but we pity her. In “Blue Jasmine,” Augie and Chili aren’t that cruel, they’re just regular Joes. And Jasmine’s lying is not that harmless but is seen as part of the fraud infecting the financial sector during the 1990s and early 00s. Her and Hal’s lies actually hurt people.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” wants to say something about the ambiguous nature of self-invention. “Blue Jasmine” wants to make the more pedestrian (but timely) point that there is a fine line between self-invention and self-delusion.
So what happens when we are “torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world”? In tragedies, this conflict is never resolved. King Lear goes mad. Willy Loman kills himself. Jasmine French ends up homeless and mad, sitting on a park bench talking to herself. I suppose that these are all cautionary tales for the rest of us since, as Arthur Miller suggests in his essay, we all experience this sense of “displacement.” No one is ever quite identical to their chosen image of what and who they are; there is always slippage. The only choice we have is to get comfortable sleeping on our sister’s couch in the Mission or else wind up sleeping in the park.
– Matthew Saks This essay originally appeared on August 27 on denvercritic.com. Read more from DenverCritic here.