When your world is based on lies, it can be a terrible shock when they are all stripped away. That’s the worst thing about lies: It seems the easiest and fastest way to move past them is with more of them, except that just increases the altitude from which you will fall when they all come down. That’s the lesson that Jasmine learns in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, about a woman whose existence is all pretense and when that pretense is exposed, it reveals little worth liking.
Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine, who we meet on a plane headed to San Francisco. She’s going to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in her tiny apartment in her middle-class neighborhood. This is not a welcome change for Jasmine. She’s used to lavish apartments on Park Avenue and fabulous sprawls in the Hamptons. Her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was a tremendously successful investor and spoiled Jasmine with the nicest clothes, jewels and parties. Ginger has next to nothing and Jasmine is not particularly amused.
She shouldn’t, however, be too critical of Ginger’s status. Jasmine’s meager means are a product of Hal’s illegal business practices. He swindled and lied to clients for decades before being caught and leaving Jasmine penniless (not exactly penniless—she refuses to sell many of her brand name items). Hal assumed magnificent wealth on the strength of sucker’s money, suckers like Ginger and her husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), who won the local lottery and were planning to build a business with it until Jasmine and Hal convinced them to invest it with them. Now Ginger and Augie are divorced and Ginger has taken up with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), who isn’t too pleased that Jasmine has moved in with Ginger at the same time he was planning to.
Jasmine can’t be bothered to feel bad about this. In her mind, Augie was a loser who would have mismanaged the money anyway and Chili is an even bigger loser for whom she is doing Ginger a favor by retarding their romantic process. Separately both Augie and Chili remind Jasmine that no matter what kind of a loser she thinks they are, they don’t steal like her ex-husband did (in jail, Hal hanged himself). Jasmine doesn’t equate that as a negative: Hal provided for her in a way that these bums never can; she never minded much how he did it.
While staying with Ginger (and insulting her way of life at every opportunity), Jasmine attempts to put her own way of life back together, the best (or only) way she knows how. She decides, if she must work, she’ll be an interior decorator. She’s always had great style, and she tries to put herself through school by working as a dentist’s receptionist. She isn’t great at it, but she does try and soon she’s on a path that might lead to an honest life. Then the dentist, aroused by Jasmine’s good clothes and aloof demeanor, comes on way too strong for her (attacks her, really) and she understandably quits the job. Not long after that, the universe gives her a way to fall back into her old bad habits in the person of Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a sophisticated widower who works for the state department and is loaded, ambitious and a little too trusting. Jasmine tells him she already is a decorator and they begin a relationship while she furnishes his house. Before long they discuss marriage, Jasmine doing her best to make herself the perfect demur mate, the complement to his political aspirations. Soon it unravels as the truth about her past comes out and Jasmine, who suffered a nervous collapse when her husband was arrested, is dealt a second mental blow.
This is a depressing movie, one about sad and mean people being sad and mean. Its story is specific, and Allen is perfectly clear he wants to punish this person for being greedy and shallow and blind to the concerns of others, but the ultimate message is of a more universal fatalism. We can’t start over the way we often want to; everything we do follows us around forever. Jasmine, sometimes as a supporting character, other times as the lead, wrecks every relationship she’s ever had because they are built on deceit and a fealty toward getting and not sharing. That’s true for her husband, her saintly sister, even her son, who is so ashamed of his parents he wants nothing to do with them. She wants these unpleasant heaps of emotional collateral to stay in her rear-view but unfortunately life doesn’t work that way. Jasmine spends the running time miserably learning Faulkner’s lesson that the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.
Allen and Blanchett create a character based on illusion then slowly strip her of it. This is a raw performance by Cate Blanchett, one that is intentionally ugly and unlikable. Watch, as the movie goes on, as the veneer comes off of Jasmine’s well-curated appearance. At the beginning she’s an elegant lady in pearls; by the end she’s a sweaty mess, disheveled and deranged. She seems like a beast from a nightmare, a selfish chimera whose striking feline features, often so alluring, are now grotesque and monstrous. For some reason, as I watched Jasmine’s lies unravel, I kept thinking of the common dream of one’s teeth falling out. Perhaps it was Jasmine’s desperate attempts to keep up her appearances while she was falling apart that made me think of a panicked dreamer horrified as, one by one, teeth fall out of his or her head. These dreams are said to represent vanity. The Chinese think they mean the dreamer has been telling too many lies. That’s certainly the case for Jasmine, and by the end, there’s not a tooth in her head.