A Soul Imprisoned in Madness: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013)

 

It may be redundant to discuss Woody Allen’s use of faces, yet I can’t help but turn to the close-ups in Blue Jasmine (2013), particularly of Cate Blanchett who plays the role of Jasmine. Even more difficult here is to pinpoint a theoretical foundation for writing on the close-up because so many film theorists, classical to contemporary, have much to say about the face.

That being said, I’ve recently finished reading a book by Sarah Cooper, The Soul of Film Theory (2013), in which she does a near complete overview of the major figures in film theory from Hugo Münsterberg to Torben Grodal and their respective uses of “soul.” The first and second chapters, focused on early and mid-twentieth century theorists, finds its thread in the close-up as that shot which provides a window to the soul of a character and oftentimes co-constituting for the spectator an experience of their own soul. In this review of Allen’s film, whether I take as my starting point the French Impressionists, Balázs, Ayfre, Agel or Morin, matters little. With Blue Jasmine the perfected close-up is not a link to a spiritual beyond, interiority equated with identity or truth, or tied to a moral dimension. We see in the intimate and close encounter with Jasmine’s face, as Tarja Laine would perhaps put it if we place her chapter in Feeling Cinema (2011) alongside Cooper’s text, a soul imprisoned in madness.[1]

The song is “Blue Moon”, Jasmine and husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) tune to celebrate their coming together.  With their inevitable demise Jasmine herself becomes, so to speak, blue. The film furthers her blues as most the soundtrack features songs that are either part of this genre or mention the blues in their titles. Jasmine is blue because her life of luxury has been buried with the husband and the government has seized her assets; she must now take refuge in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who leads a modest existence as a grocery store worker. Blue Jasmine works with flashbacks to propel us to the moment of Jasmine’s arrival in San Francisco – we trace her relationship with Hal, his criminal activity, and his eventual arrest. The diegetic present, beginning with Jasmine’s arrival on the West Coast, depicts her challenging relationship with Ginger, her new lower class surroundings, and the replacement upper class partner Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom she must keep her past locked up lest he discover the prior marriage and its scandal. But lies will quickly be exposed; in life and in film we know this to be the case for both ethical and melodramatic reasons.

Blue is the color of sadness, which could also be depression, which is itself a mental health issue. The story goes that Jasmine turned blue on a street corner one day after (finally) discovering the truth about her husband’s extra-marital affairs, and after his criminal dealings were exposed, and after his suicide in prison. While the first of the three is clearly the dominant trigger for Jasmine’s breakdown, the subsequent schizophrenia and her general unease and anti-social behaviour points to crisis at a more universal level. Crises are difficult to prevent, mediate, and resolve whether an individual was fed by a silver spoon or consistently received a wooden one to the backside. In Jasmine’s case her soul is crushed by the weight of the affairs which happened under her nose and the bad decision to then inform the FBI of Hal’s illegal activity. Her blues extends further toward the end of the diegetic present with the step-son whose hatred of his father’s criminality does not reach the intensity of his hatred for the step-mother who was largely the cause of his father’s suicide. The description of this feature, thus far, is one of drama and tears; yet most audiences would classify it as a comedy.

Blue Jasmine would fully retain its comedic tone, without argument, if not for the seriousness of Jasmine’s plight expertly framed in close-ups as well as superbly acted by Blanchett. Otherwise the comedy is all there: the similar yet economically divergent buffoons Hal, played by Baldwin, and Ginger’s poorly-cast boyfriend Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale; the obvious comic relief in the sister’s extra-monogamous object of attraction Al, played by Louis C.K.; and possessing the critical flair of a Luis Buñuel feature, Allen depicts the hilarity of the upper and lower classes converging and mingling in San Francisco. Even the distance between the average movie-goer and the luxurious life of Jasmine has a comedic effect; few of us could see the everyday realism of world travel, expensive restaurants, and a seemingly infinite bank account.

But Blanchett’s face and the photography of Javier Aguirresarobe (who also worked on Allen’s worst film Vicky Cristina Barcelona [2008]) loosen the categories of genre. Blanchett is shown contorting her face, scrunching it, furrowing her brow, and swelling her eyes with tears numerous times throughout the film, each shot a new and degenerated visage as Jasmine’s life and mental state worsens. My initial reaction to the shot was always a chuckle, but as the camera lingers a little too long on Blanchett’s painfully still face, full of shame, anguish, guilt, and despair, my pleasure switches to a mild horror. Allen literally makes Jasmine sweat; she is covered, head to armpits in fear and discomfort, especially in the last scene as Jasmine’s world crumbles entirely. She sits herself on a bench, like May-Lin (Kuei-Mei Yang) in Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour (1994), begins to talk to herself, and with a final close-up on her sweaty face and greasy hair, the film plunges into darkness. Blanchett’s performance plays out the horror of psychosis without needing the mise-en-scene of Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) apartment in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). I would argue both Carol’s hallucinations and Jasmine’s facial expressions have the same effect on viewers.

There have been few actors capable of portraying so much madness. Jasmine’s soul is put on display – Allen may have intended a satirical narrative but what we see instead is a terror latent in Jasmine, the presence of a tortured soul bubbling and finally culminating in a twisted, crooked face. While we may not “feel” or identify with the character, her richness, pretentiousness, and bourgeois existence nauseating us, what is revealed, like the Ancient Greek Tragedians whom operate in Allen’s oeuvre implicitly and explicitly, is that even those atop the very peak of the upper class have the capacity to experience immense suffering.

The suffering of the soul effects the individual’s psychology then manifests in facial expression. Body and soul are connected, the soul appearing on the surface of the skin. The surface of Jasmine’s face calls us to laugh initially then look away; hers is a face not cleansed as Henri Agel would describe it but torn and sullied by an anguished soul. A film does not touch us in mind, intellect, or body alone, says Agel; Allen’s close-ups, which give us the souls of the characters, are so repetitively invoked by spectators, critics, and theorists because that soul onscreen makes contact with our own.


[1] Tarja Laine, “Imprisoned in Madness: Repulsion,” in Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies, New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

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