Blue Jasmine (2013): Homage and Re-Imagining

Sometimes when we see different versions of an original piece of art we tend to dismiss them as cheesy imitations, turning art into a cliche, like, the many faces and parodies of the Mona Lisa.

And sometimes, when we see a work that we know is a new version of an older masterpiece and yet we appreciate it, all because it brings us a breath of fresh air, a different perspective, new insights, a re-imagining, or offers us some new pleasures.

Here are a few examples. Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) is the auteur’s version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and movingly crafted. West Side Story (1961), we appreciate it as a different styling of Romeo and Juliet. Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), we know it to be a Japanese rendition of King Lear, and we marvel at the director’s handling of a Shakespearean classic from a different culture. A bit later, the younger generation in the 1990’s enjoyed Clueless (1995) even though they may not have noticed the resemblance to Jane Austen’s Emma. With Disturbia (2007), we see Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window making its way into the minds of teenaged viewers, and who cares that they didn’t even know it.

Woody Allen has done that many a times in his over four decade career as a director, creating different versions of the works from those he had expressed deep admiration. Call it homage, if you will, or borrowing, but we never have the impression that he’s ‘copying’. Copying is mindless triviality. But a look at Allen’s Interiors, we’ll see the deep shadow of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, the intense yet intimate styling of a chamber drama. Or Hannah and Her Sisters, an apt parallel with Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, we see him deal with the issue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or rather, crime and the absence of punishment. I’m sure you can think of some more examples.

Blue Jasmine Movie Poster

So here with Allen’s 48th feature Blue Jasmine, does it matter that its structure and characterization parallel Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the Elia Kazan 1951 classic movie? Especially when we see such a finely crafted, enjoyable, and impressively performed modern version, we can only admire Allen’s imagination and creativity. I have a feeling that he (or his casting staff) gets Cate Blanchett to star as Jasmine because of her on-stage mastery of Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire performed not too long ago.

With Blue Jasmine, the 77 year-old director seems to have hit his stride yet again. Two years ago, Midnight in Paris brought him the highest opening box office gross in his career, now Blue Jasmine has surpassed that. Blue Jasmine will also be the widest screened Woody Allen movie, so far. It reaffirms the director’s talent in how he can bring out the best from his actors.

Cate Blanchett turns from blanche to blue, but just the same as she steps down the social ladder in a fragile mental state, dependent on a cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants. She is Jasmine, a New York socialite who has to go stay with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco after her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) meets the full legal consequence of his fraudulent business dealings, a definite change of course from Allen’s earlier movies Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.

The real and imaginary in Jasmine’s mind is smoothly shifted as we see her delusional self living in the present and the past at the same time. Allen handles it very well. The non-lineal storytelling is seamless. Blanchett is superb in her lucid performance, portraying convincingly a whole spectrum of emotions and mental states, while tugging at our heartstrings as we see her try desperately to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life. This is where Allen is best, piercing sad human situations with light and gentle humor.

Allen has plenty of materials to poke fun at and chances to deliver his social commentaries. Yes folks, there is a class system in democratic America, and the humor in the film is at the expense of both the upper class and maybe more, the menial workers. Mind the gap, for it is unbridgeable. Fact is, the fun of the film, I’m afraid, is at the expense of depicting some of the characters a bit like caricatures. Having said that, I must applaud the wonderful acting from the supporting cast. They look like they are convinced first of their character’s idiosyncrasy, making their portrayals so unabashedly natural.

Further, Allen seems to redeem himself in presenting a moralistic stance. True love can be found right there in Ginger’s circle with her devoted boyfriend Chilli (Bobby Cannavale), whom Jasmine calls a ‘loser’; the deceivers are from the upper crust, Hal (Alec Baldwin) being the prominent figure. Others who may look like a step up for Ginger could well be a mirage. The wonderful supporting cast includes Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, Louie C. K. the seemingly hopeful sound engineer, Michael Stuhlbarg, the serious man turned desperate dentist, and Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight, no doubt the parallel of Mitch (Karl Malden) in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Blanchett’s Jasmine performance has already sent out Oscar buzz, and it’s only August. She carries the film through brilliantly. An Oscar nomination should be well deserved. We are glad to find too that Allen has not missed a beat after his success with Midnight in Paris, still churning out enjoyable films on an annual basis, while sometimes a superb actor can much enhance our appreciation, as it is the case here. 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Other related posts:

Midnight In Paris

A Serious Man (Michael Stuhlbarg)

An Education (Peter Sarsgaard)

Do we need a Rebecca Remake? Another Grapes of Wrath?

Art and Cliché