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BLUE JASMINE's Complex Interior(s)

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by A.D. Jameson
August 15, 2013 8:35 AM
3 Comments
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Cate Blanchett in BLUE JASMINE (2013)
Cate Blanchett in BLUE JASMINE (2013)
Geraldine Page in INTERIORS (1978)
Geraldine Page in INTERIORS (1978)

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:

  • Both films are straight dramas, and fairly sober. (There’s no comedic plotline, like in Crimes and Misdemeanors.)
  • Allen doesn’t appear in either film.
  • Both films depict the mental deterioration of their respective protagonists.
  • In Interiors, Eve (Geraldine Page) suffers a breakdown after her longtime husband announces his desire for a trial separation; she clings to the futile hope that they will reconcile. In Blue Jasmine, Jasmine’s collapse follows the downfall of her deceitful husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), to whom she periodically continues speaking, despite his having hung himself in prison.
  • Eve is an interior decorator, a job Jasmine aspires to—going so far as to pretend to her suitor Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) that she already is one.
  • Both films alternate fluidly between past and present action.
  • The overall editing styles of both films are similar, as Allen employs many abrupt cuts between scenes. Both films, for instance, tend to cut hard on the heels of the last line in a scene, often using this as an opportunity to switch between the timelines. (Allen first started matching on dialogue like this in Annie Hall.)

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 (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:

Blue moon

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.


A.D Jameson is the author of the prose collection
Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), in which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on '80s pop culture, and the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He's taught classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and StoryStudio Chicago. He's also the nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal Requited. He recently started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time, he contributes to the group blogs Big Other and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

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3 Comments

  • Jordan | August 15, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    Great piece, however, I would say that Crimes and Misdemeanors is a tragedy despite the fact that it has a happy ending... if anything that IS the tragedy and that is what makes Allen so impressive - he makes us reconsider our own formulae. Blue Jasmine forces a similar questioning of rules because as you mentioned, Jasmine is a stereotype or caricature, but because of the nuances of the writing and portrayal she is a stereotype or caricature in her own world not ours, which in it's own mysteriously ironic way, actually makes her more real to us.

  • az | August 15, 2013 3:59 PMReply

    as you note later in your article, his tragedies can be recast as comedies, and vice versa. there IS a comedic plot line in Blue Jasmine, and the difference between the two can be as simple as scoring. many of the interactions between Ginger and her suitors are funny and awkward; at the screening i attended, the audience certainly cringed and snickered at the ham-fisted courtship of Jasmine by the dentist, and Chili's short friend.

    which brings us to your assertion that "there is no Stanley Kowalski," although of course there is: he is a combination of Chili and Augie. both are intelligent, incisive, physically violent, and testosterone-fueled. they are both even emotional -- the "Stella!" scene is alluded to when Chili breaks down in the greengrocer. thankfully, Allen spared his audience the parallel of Jasmine seducing/being dominated by her sister's man.

    even though Blue Jasmine is largely tragic, Allen has cast his film with half a dozen comedic talents. Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins weren't booked for nothing... if not for their nuanced displays of the tragicomic duality in their stand-up and rom-com work. (i'm always curious as to what comedians Allen will put on in his movies, considering his own beginnings.)

  • A D Jameson | August 15, 2013 4:39 PM

    Thanks for the comment, AZ. I don't think I was clear enough above. I didn't mean to imply that there aren't comedic moments in "Blue Jasmine"—there are. But the film is, overall, a tragedy, and as such isn't structured the same way that "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is. In C&M, there are two disconnected but interwoven plotlines—the Martin Landau/Anjelica Huston one, which is primarily tragic, and the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow/Alan Alda one, which is primarily comedic. And they come together only at the very end of the film.

    As for Chili and Augie, I wouldn't disagree that they're based on Stanley Kowalski. But notice how Allen has already diverted from following "Streetcar" by splitting the character into two. Ultimately, neither Chili nor Auggie function the way SK does in "Streetcar" (though I like the connection you draw between the supermarket scene and SK's impassioned "Stella!"). In other words, even if one knows "Streetcar," one still can't predict how "Blue Jasmine" will play out. It's a source of inspiration, absolutely, but the film isn't a remake of that play, and the two can't be mapped cleanly onto each other.

    Along those lines, I think critics have overemphasized the connections with "Streetcar," while ignoring the connections with Allen's own work, specifically "Interiors." And I see this as following a larger method in Allen's own work. He often takes inspiration from other artworks (his own and others), but then feels free to make the material his own.

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