Commentary on Blue Jasmine, a film by Woody Allen
by Sandra Salatich, PsyD, Community Member
I met my colleague on the corner as we often do, between sessions and before and after workdays. “Have you seen Blue Jasmine?” he asked excitedly. “No,” I confessed. “Oh, oh, you will love it, it is fantastic.” Not long after this encounter I bumped into another colleague and was met with the same question and a similar enthusiastic endorsement of the movie’s excellence. “Oh,” he chuckled, “you’ve got to see it.” It took some time to arrange my life but finally I found myself at the theater, popcorn in hand, early on a Friday evening, excited to enjoy myself. Very soon after the movie began the popcorn faded away and I found myself entranced with the minute movements of the film. Yes, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the torn and tormented Jasmine was riveting and brilliantly acted. And Woody Allen’s skillful, cinematic nuance and symbolic support of the subject was fascinating. So why did I leave after the end of the movie in a fury?
Let’s start with watching a beautiful woman crumble and struggle as entertainment. We are inside her mind and inside her shower, and somehow it does not engender pathos as much as fascination. It has a quality of peering in. What did my colleagues love about this film? It was so well done, they said. Look how brilliantly Woody portrayed psychosis. Is she psychotic? When she is talking to herself I believe Woody is showing us what is in her mind, not people being hallucinated in front of her. Hysterical? Dissociated? Depressed? The clinical picture is intriguing and her story unfolds in a fashion much akin to an analysis and therefore provides us therapists with thought provoking material.
Jasmine does show intense anxiety and with any impediment large or small she reaches for her Xanax and her vodka. When any thought or feeling begins to make itself known she must occlude it. For me, one of the brilliant aspects of the film was showing how Jasmine functioned in a space between knowing and not knowing, which is in fact where we all live. And, in a parallel way, we who watch the film know and do not know many things. First of all, we do not know the whole story of what happened between her and her husband Hal. We are shown bits and pieces of business deals. Are they illegal? We find out Hal killed himself in jail and we are shocked. Sometime later we learn that Jasmine turned her husband into the FBI and we are shocked. These jolts and the confusion around putting together her story land us in the same struggle as her. What do we know? What can we know? What happens to us when we do know?
However, how do I balance getting into the clinical picture against the way the movie tells us her story? For example, the role of men in the film is difficult to reconcile. Hal is the philandering, rule-breaker without any conscience. He plucked Jasmine from college when she was 19 years old and she serves him as the wife who performs the social duties of his status. The man, Dwight, that Jasmine meets in California is also attracted to her because of her looks and the way she dresses. At their first encounter they meet with him carefully taking inventory of her clothes and accessories, and the way she has put them together. He is delighted with the package and she in return gives a bright but searching smile as if to say, he sees me? He knows I am wearing Chanel and Hermes and thereby, does he know me? But later in what I consider to be one of the most powerful scenes in the film Dwight describes to Jasmine how their life will go; decorate his palatial waterfront house, off to Europe for a couple of years while he climbs the political ladder, return to the U.S. to pursue more of his aspirations. She will be the perfect beauty on his arm. In response to this declaration Jasmine looks stunned, and she moves towards grokking the reality of what he is saying by asking in a choked voice, “are you saying you love me?” She comes close to knowing the answer to this question but quickly and desperately reaches for her purse and her pill bottle. Throughout the film Jasmine demonstrates to us how dangerous it is to think and know and how she must blur her mind with drugs.
The lengths Jasmine goes to to eradicate her mind are counterposed with her attempt to stay intact, mostly demonstrated by her attention to her carefully arranged appearance. She tries to keep herself upright in her Chanel jacket with her expensive Birkin bag close at her side. Twice in the film, at her hands, the handbag explodes and its contents fly out. In both cases the man that Jasmine is attached to is leaving her. Hal says he is leaving her and Jasmine in scrambling for her phone spills its contents. And again, when Dwight breaks up with her, the contents of Jasmine’s purse explode all over the sidewalk. Once she gathers up her belongings and desperately clutches her purse she straightens her jacket, arduously raises her head, and stiffly walks on to face her life.
Much can be written about the psychological aspects of the film including Jasmine’s history as adopted and the interruption of her own life’s development by depending on Hal from an early age. Her studies in anthropology are arrested-knowledge, understanding, and the ability to dig things up are abandoned for finding value and security as a trophy wife. The price is the expensive loss of her very self. She relinquished her ability to discover and develop and know her own desire, independence, autonomy; and instead excelled at being that which Hal needed her to be a beautiful, social princess without a mind.
Why do we love to watch beautiful women destroy and be destroyed? What do we get from it? One could say she is ‘other’ and we are safe in thinking that it could not happen to us. We are not that beautiful. We are not that rich. We are not that dependent. And, we are not fragile. One can also look to the psychoanalytic literature to find rich discussions of why the feminine must be disavowed, negated, quashed. In this film there is a repudiation of the feminine as personified by Jasmine that is so syntonic with our society that it becomes invisible. After reading several glowing reviews I found one that was in concert with some of my reactions. Francine Prose (2013) demonstrates her struggle with the film when she states “...It took me until the next day to figure out why I’d found Blue Jasmine distasteful. That morning, my husband said he’d awoken in the middle of the night feeling as if we’d watched a film in which a woman is beaten, degraded, humiliated, tortured—a snuff film whose victim is driven mad but allowed to live.” The film’s ability to captivate is so compelling that we become engrossed in the experience and miss the attack. I think this tension lies at the heart of my fury.
In a recent publication On Freud’s “Femininity”, psychoanalytic writers explore the question of feminine development, the need for difference, and specific to my topic, why the feminine is so powerfully repudiated by both men and women (Shaefer, 2010). Intriguing and thought provoking discussions such as the constant need to redefine and rework the definition of the feminine as a function of maintaining differences between the sexes provide the reader with many opportunities to help formulate one’s own viewpoint on the subject. Both the analyst and viewer’s relationship to the feminine come into play in our reactions to Jasmine, as well as to our patients.
I left in a fury because Woody Allen participated in the destruction of this woman and the feminine by showing us the intimate workings of her mind and body. Yet the men are left unexamined, standing in as characters without dimension and therefore, any culpability or morality. I believe that the audience uses Jasmine in the same way as the men in the film, as an object to manipulate. After having seen the film I ran into the original colleague and told him I had seen the film. His eyes sparkled, “wasn’t it wonderful how her pathology was portrayed?” Yes, I concurred, the acting was amazing and the attention to detail impressive, “but what about the misogyny?” I asked. “Oh,” he replied, “that’s our culture.”
As a representation of our culture Blue Jasmine is part of a long list of films about watching the destruction of a woman. She is never plain or ugly, never dull. She is beautiful, smart, intriguing, full of style. In this light Woody Allen has done nothing novel except to bring all of his cinematic talent and psychological knowledge to an exquisite and painful crystalline point. Blue Jasmine is cruel. My colleagues’ infectious and jubilant endorsement of the film set me up to think this was going to be an evolution of Woody Allen’s skill. What I found instead was that loving her as our own trophy is still the game we like.
Prose, Francine 2013. Watching her drown. The New York Review of Books, August 2013.
Schaeffer, J. (2010). The riddle of the repudiation of the feminine: the scandal of the feminine dimension.
In On Freud’s “Femininity”, ed. Glocer Fiorini, L. and Abelin-Sas Rose, F. London: Karnac. 129-143