‘Blue Jasmine’: Empathy For The Elite

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Blue Jasmine is a film about the 1% and Bernie Madoff that actually isn’t about either of these things at all; they’re elements of window dressing rather than substance, as Woody Allen’s eponymous heroine might herself declare. They only comprise the film’s backdrop, against which Allen fashions his examination of Jasmine’s shame, guilt, and inability to assume personal responsibility over her life, while also posing a fundamental question whose answer invariably shapes our response as the audience. Can we accord sympathy to a has-been member of America’s obscene wealth culture? If no, then Blue Jasmine may resemble a variation on cruel revenge fantasy, or simply play out as a colossal waste of time. Pity Jasmine? What on Earth for?

If yes, though, Blue Jasmine becomes a multi-layered and deeply complex work that humbly requests its viewers set aside their moral and ideological outrages, or (perhaps more accurately) contextualize them in tandem with the narrative’s story of excess punished. Allen isn’t inviting us to relish in observing Jasmine’s decent from the upper echelons of American society to the depths her sister, Ginger, inhabits; he’s asking us to show compassion to a person whose indulgent, opulent lifestyle has left her utterly detached from the realities the rest of the world contends with daily. After all, since the government – the oft-invoked bureaucratic devil of her nightmares- stripped her bare of her financial assets, there’s nothing else for us to look at than the fragile woman that remains.

And if Jasmine is anything, she’s that: vulnerable, delicate, easily fractured. She spends an astounding amount of time in the film talking to herself, though rarely out of earshot from passerby who regard her with coltish bewilderment and concern, if they deign to regard her at all. Even before Blue Jasmine reaches its inevitable conclusion, the cracks in her facade show quite plainly, whether she’s at a swanky seaside party or moored to her seat on the flight to San Francisco where we first meet her; by the time the film comes to a close, she’s left maundering aloud on a park bench, bereft of human companionship – not even total strangers care to entertain her neuroses – and emotionally shattered.

That’s because Jasmine defines her persona solely through her money, her possessions, and the dolce far niente of her daily routine prior to the film’s central contretemps, involving the arrest, financial downfall, and eventual suicide of her Ponzi-scheming husband, Hal. With her ill-gotten gains, she had foundation, definition, and a pompous kind of strength; without them, she’s a husk, a person of class with no access to the world where her elegant bearing offers her social currency. There’s a remarkably palpable difference in how Jasmine carries herself in the past, which we experience through flashbacks  cataloging her decadent frivolity, and the present, where she’s an echo chamber of bygone exchanges and her reminiscences.

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Yet despite the existential upheaval she undergoes, Blue Jasmine rarely allows us to see the truth of its protagonist; in her happier days as a real housewife of New York and her current circumstances as a refugee on Ginger’s couch, the film tends to portray her persona as pure invention. Jasmine’s playing a role, one her foster parents prepared her for through childhood favoritism – she got the good genes, as Ginger frequently reminds us, though of course they’re not biologically related – and she stays in character even when she’s lost her high status. She’s exactly the phony that Augie, Ginger’s coarse ex-husband, accuses her of being, save for two significant moments of exception that occur in the film’s third act.

The first of those involve Augie, who openly confronts Jasmine as she shops for an engagement ring with her new beau, affluent aspiring politician Dwight. Unsurprisingly, she’s sold Dwight a bill of goods, lying to him about her misfortunes to spare herself embarrassment; when Augie accosts the pair, he pierces Jasmine’s deceptions and in the process extracts a measure of honesty out of her when he mentions Danny, Hal’s son, and reveals the young man’s fate following his father’s ruin. She’s dumbstruck by the knowledge, which clearly shakes her into a state of sudden lucidity; soon after, she tracks the bitter Danny down and shares a heartfelt (if lopsidedly toxic) reunion with him where she peels off her mask even further and approaches something akin to tenderness.

Maybe one could partially characterize this particular interaction as fake; it’s Augie, after all, who impels Jasmine to open up and face reality by forcing her hand in what can essentially be described as an ambush. But there’s no denying the authenticity of her reaction to his sentiment, or to her final encounter with Danny, where she drops all pretense in favor of being genuine for possibly the first time in Blue Jasmine‘s narrative. In both instances, she’s no longer on stage performing for the sake of keeping up appearances; she’s expressing something true, a bit selfish, yes, but also undoubtedly real.

Jasmine’s never more real, though, than in the film’s climax, where we witness the progenitor event to the preceding story as Jasmine – in a fit of pique – calls the FBI and informs on Hal. She does this not for virtue but for vengeance, having discovered Hal’s extramarital activities and muscled a confession out of him. The scene reads as a Russian nesting doll of betrayal exposed, from the outer shell to the innermost; Hal’s philandering, his defrauding, and Jasmine’s snitching, which incidentally buys a small token of vindication for the ever-suspicious Augie, resolute to the end in his belief that Jasmine knew of Hal’s transgressions and willfully turned a blind eye to them.

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Again, this is Jasmine at her most unbound, but not her most principled or ethical. It’s an ugly moment that’s also categorically human, and if Blue Jasmine is about anything, it’s about recognizing people as people through all of the flaws that comprise their being. Even Augie, a man whose reputation is established almost entirely by the actor playing him (the infamous Andrew Dice Clay), possesses basic humanity, and so too does Jasmine regardless of her less admirable qualities – her entitlement, her self-obsession, her inclination toward canting – and her role in not only her own undoing but Hal’s, Danny’s, Ginger’s, and Augie’s. She’s not a monster; she’s a person, complicated and capable of being hurt.

Ultimately, Jasmine is one of the film’s most damaged parties, though Augie most resembles an innocent bystander; he’s a mark, a chump set up to fail by a charming conman, and Hal’s grand scam lays him lower than everybody else. Meanwhiel, Jasmine stands at the helm of her own misfortune – she’s to blame for much of her woe – but she’s nonetheless victimized by Hal’s duplicity and infidelity as well as the astronomic standard of expectation set for her by her parents. (Though that’s a bit unkind to say, if only because the parents are never present to defend themselves or offer another side to the story beyond what Allen shows and tells.) And even when she steers herself to calamity, severing her ties with Ginger and Dwight, she’s pathetically alone in a way none of the players in Blue Jasmine‘s cast can totally understand.

Maybe Allen sees a sort of kinship in Jasmine – once upon a time, he, too, wound up becoming a social pariah as a consequence of choices he made. Their respective hardships don’t line up perfectly, of course, but Allen can appreciate what it’s like to lose the favor of his peers and the public alike (a state of being that, admittedly, hasn’t impacted the reception of his films). More than anything, though, he’s gifted enough to articulate the spiritual suffering afflicted upon someone as unanchored as Jasmine; she’s a falling star, disbursing contrails of hopeless narcissism, drug-addled instability, and tragic naivety as she plummets from the heavens. If she’s self-destructive, she’s still worthy of some empathy.