Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.
Critics have widely noted that the scenario of Woody Allen’s latest feature, Blue Jasmine (2013), is indebted to A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). However, cinematically, the film owes just as much—if not more—to an earlier Allen film: the obscure Interiors (1978).
Blue Jasmine’s indebtedness to Streetcar is fairly obvious. The movie depicts what happens when the blustery socialite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), having fallen on hard times, moves in with her working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), initiating a series of class conflicts. What’s more, Blanchett came to the project after a tenure as Blanche in a Broadway adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s famed drama.
The connections with Interiors, however, should be just as apparent. What obscures them is the fact that Interiors was little-seen in its time, and is today little-remembered. To be fair, it’s a fairly bleak drama that presumably startled and confused audiences more accustomed to Woody Allen’s nebbish comedy—indeed, the film was how Allen chose to follow Annie Hall (1977), after that film’s success afforded him carte blanche.
Interiors certainly has its problems (which I’ll get to below), but it remains fascinating if for no other reason than it was Allen’s first attempt at serious drama. We’re more familiar with that side of Woody today; since then, he’s also made September (1987), Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Match Point (2005)—and now Blue Jasmine. And so it’s high time to revisit Interiors, and note the ways in which Blue Jasmine is beholden to it.
Some of the broad similarities between Interiors and Blue Jasmine include:
Additionally, Blue Jasmine includes other signs that the ever-introspective Allen is now remembering his previous work. The amorous dentist for whom Jasmine briefly becomes a receptionist, Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), bears the same name as the Brooklyn psychologist in Annie Hall who assures a young Alvy Singer that there’s no reason to fear an expanding universe. And the mentally unstable Jasmine is another variation on a familiar Allen archetype that includes not only Interiors’s Eve but also Radha Mitchell’s Melinda in Melinda and Melinda (2004), Christina Ricci’s Amanda in Anything Else (2003), Mia Farrow’s turns as Hope and Lane in Another Woman and September, respectively, Dianne Wiest’s Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and, arguably, Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall.
A willingness to rework “whatever works” is not new in Allen’s cinema; the man has long been in the habit of basing his films on preexisting material. Sometimes the influence is explicit: Stardust Memories (1981) clearly revises Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963), and neither Match Point nor Crimes and Misdemeanors disguises its debt to Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866). Similarly, Sweet and Lowdown (1999) cribs a fair amount from Fellini’s La Strada (1954), Husbands and Wives (1992) steals from Bergman’s TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and September would be unimaginable without Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya (1897/9). At other times, the inspiration is subtler: Deconstructing Harry (1997) borrows a portion of its central scenario from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), a fact that might be overlooked due to the film’s wealth of material and concern with metatextuality. (Both films are picaresques in which an older man travels to receive an award from his former university; furthermore, the scenes depicting Harry’s fictions are arguably equivalent to Wild Strawberries’s dream sequences.) And To Rome with Love (2012) is only loosely inspired by Boccaccio’s 14th-century classic collection of tales The Decameron. (Its’ working title was “Bop Decameron.”) Melinda and Melinda pays homage to My Dinner with Andre (1981) by including Wallace Shawn among the dinner companions, and takes its central conceit from Alain Resnais’s 1993 experiment Smoking/No Smoking (1993) (or perhaps Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s The Double Life of Veronique, 1991).
Given this, it’s worth remembering a fascinating argument made by Brad Stevens in a feature article in the April 2011 Sight & Sound (“In Defence of Woody Allen”). There, Stevens claims that all of Allen’s recent films (those since 2000) are to some extent variations on one another:
“When viewed as a group, films that—taken individually—could hardly seem any clearer or less ambiguous in their intentions begin to feel mysterious and fragmented, diverse parts of a whole whose contours can be glimpsed only as the various pieces of the puzzle fall into place.”
In other words, Allen has spent the past ten years basing his films . . . on his own previous work. Stevens notes that both Small Time Crooks (2000) and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) feature jewel thefts, while both Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) and Whatever Works (2009) feature “women who realize they are gifted photographers as soon as they become part of a ménage à troi.” Even more compellingly, Stevens reads Scoop (2006) as a comedic reworking of the material that Match Point presents as tragedy: “both deal explicitly with the class system and involve males who murder women in order to preserve privileged positions within that system.” Along these lines, Stevens notes how the seemingly innocuous Melinda and Melinda serves as something of a “guide” to reading Allen’s recent work, serving up tragic and comedic variations of the same story.
All of this having been said, I wouldn’t want to overlook the substantial differences between Blue Jasmine and Interiors. Most importantly, Interiors, despite being a beautiful and intriguing film (especially in the context of Allen’s filmography and career), is hardly a successful feature. It is for one thing much too derivative of Ingmar Bergman, especially Persona (1966) and Cries & Whispers (1972)—the final shot, for instance, feels especially contrived, a blatant copy of cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s work.
Blue Jasmine wears its influences more lightly: while the film begins with a scenario taken from Tennessee Williams, Allen quickly puts his own stamp on the material, and quickly sets out in his own direction: there is no Stanley Kowalski, no “Stella!”, and both sisters soon get caught up in romances with other men. Blue Jasmine is also the more successful film in terms of its characterization and tone. Jasmine and Ginger, et al., are far more complex creations than the caricatures inhabiting the chilly corridors of Interiors. (The exception of course is Eve; Geraldine Page’s performance is nuanced and powerful). Moreover, whereas Interiors is marred by the same clunkiness that sometimes haunts Allen’s dramas (see also September), Blue Jasmine’s dialogue and plotting recall the subtler scripting on display in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point.
For instance, consider the question of Jasmine’s culpability. She gives the impression that she never had any knowledge of Hal’s criminal endeavors, or even the capacity to understand them. Indeed, she routinely protests that when she encouraged Ginger and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest with Hal, she was simply trying to help them out. However, after Hal confesses to Jasmine that he has been serially unfaithful, and what’s more that he intends to marry the French au pair he is currently seeing, we see Jasmine make a phone call to the FBI, which leads to his arrest. We might presume that Jasmine offered to testify against her husband, and therefore knew more than she later lets on. The point is not elaborated upon, and only Jasmine’s adopted son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) seems to know this fact, explaining his desire to have no further contact with the woman.
Thus, Allen’s filmmaking is more subtle than critics commonly recognize— perhaps distracted by the broad strokes?—as well as more introspective. Above all else, Allen recognizes that psychological insight is not threatened by artifice. He has always been comfortable allowing his fictions to be fictions—always fake, and always based on other works, his own and others. Part of Allen’s value as a writer and as a filmmaker (and I personally consider him among the highest ranks in both categories) has always stemmed from his simultaneous pursuit of psychological insight by means of inherited material. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is in many ways a stereotype, a shallow socialite decked out in Chanel belts and Louis Vuitton bags; her costuming is anything but subtle. But Allen’s broad signaling in this regard does not diminish the power of the portrayal. By the end of the film, Allen and Blanchett & company have constructed a complex character whose psychological suffering is palpable and unsettling.
Take for instance the final scene, which is as neat and poetic an ending as could be hoped for. Throughout the film, Jasmine’s been haunted by strains of “Blue Moon,” the song that was playing when she first met Hal, who became the source of her highest highs and her lowest lows. Each time we are given only an instrumental version. At the end, the song returns, and as Jasmine sits and mumbles to herself, alone on a park bench, she admits that the words have become “a jumble” (the film’s last line). But Allen trusts us to remember them:
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own
This is the height of Allen’s artistry on display. Watch how it happens. The song is redemptive, but we see Jasmine solitary and hopeless, her last chance at redemption blown. Arguably, she deserves her comeuppance. But who will be the first among us to insist upon that? Allen, meanwhile, hangs back and quietly observes. Jasmine sits there and he watches her sitting there, and as the song continues playing we realize the gentle irony of the movie’s title: “Blue Jasmine.” This is a very sad ending for such a creature, monstrous though she may be.
But Jasmine isn’t a monster, which is precisely Allen’s point: she’s utterly complex, and none the less so for having been stitched together out of pieces taken from countless prior protagonists. Woody Allen both inherited her and made her—that’s the real irony. And he keeps on shooting, and dares us to risk caring.