For all of his best known tropes—fear of death, romantic anxiety, those inescapable mother issues—Woody Allen is rarely talked about in terms of his exploration of class.
Class, however, has been a constant theme of his work—whether it’s Martin Landau’s disgust over his philistine girlfriend in Crimes and Misdemeanors (she couldn’t distinguish between Schubert and Schumann) or Alvy Singer, feeling abundantly, self-consciously Jewish as he sits around the WASP-y dinner table of Annie Hall. (Indeed, Allen’s films have always been a model of good taste themselves—from the Windsor typeface of his opening credits, to the perfectly curated jazz and classical music that fill up his scores.)
Allen’s understanding of class and, in particular, the near panicky snobbism of the upwardly mobile, is at the forefront of Blue Jasmine, and embodied in a brilliant, fearless performance by Cate Blanchett. Her Jasmine grew up sturdily middle class but always had a sense she was destined for grander things. (She was adopted—which certainly might encourage the illusion that her rightful social standing had been unjustly snatched from her.)
Her dreams come true when she marries the dashing investment broker Hal (Alec Baldwin). Their life—of garden parties and world travel and taupe-hued interior design—is exactly what she always envisioned for herself, so she’s willing to overlook a couple of things: Namely, that her husband is a Bernie Madoff-style crook. Also, that he sleeps around with impunity.
As the film starts, Jasmine’s ideal life has been shattered—Hal has been caught red-handed (both as a marital cheater and a financial one) and Jasmine is broke and ostracized by society. So she goes crawling back to her kid sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, in a marvelously unpretentious performance), a good-natured, unfussy girl living in San Francisco, who nonetheless adores and even idolizes Jasmine.
There is a wonderful flashback of a few years earlier, when Ginger and her then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay, weirdly good) visit Jasmine and Hal in Manhattan. Jasmine can barely tolerate her sister’s unsophisticated eagerness and tacky clothing. And she is downright repulsed by the bear-like Augie’s loud, gauche ways. (Blanchett plays Jasmine’s class consciousness as a physical thing—she literally recoils from things that she finds distasteful.)
This trip to Manhattan proves fateful for Ginger and her marriage. Hal gives Augie investment advice (bad investment advice, needless to say) and it ruins him—it also drives an irreparable wedge between him and Ginger.
Augie, however, remains a voice of common sense and native wisdom throughout the film. “When your sister had all that money she wanted nothing to do with you,” he reminds Ginger. “Now that she’s broke, all of a sudden she’s moving in.”
“She’s not just broke,” Ginger replies. “She’s all screwed up.”
In fact, Jasmine has taken to muttering to herself and wandering the streets of San Francisco aimlessly. She knows that she has no coping skills—her only hope is to latch herself onto a successful worldly man. When she does, briefly, to a wealthy aspiring politician (Peter Sarsgaard), her palpable relief has a whiff of desperation.
This is the genius of Cate Blachett’s performance—Jasmine is a horrible person, but she secretly knows it. She sees herself as ridiculous, albeit in a tragic, glamorous sort of way. (The character has been compared, rightfully, to Blanche DuBois). Her life was perfect, but it was also a carefully constructed illusion.
When the financial bubble burst, so did her tenuous grip on happiness.