Blue Jasmine & Mood Indigo

September 14, 2013
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There are directors who enjoy a special rapport with actors, being able to coax memorable performances from the most unpromising talent. On the opposite side of the ledger are those such as Baz Luhrmann, who can assemble an all-star cast and turn everyone into a cardboard cut-out.

Woody Allen is the joker in the pack. The big name actors seem to treat him with affection, if not reverence, queueing up to be in his films. It’s not because of the brilliant scripts, because Allen’s work has become increasingly clichéd, repetitive and self-caricatural. One meets with the same kind of characters, making the same kind of jokes, dealing with the same neurotic fixations. Too many of his films have a perfunctory feeling, as if he is turning them out on an assembly line.

Just when it seemed as if Allen would never make another tolerable movie, along comes Blue Jasmine. To borrow a line from an old Woody Allen stand-up comedy routine: it’s a good film, and might even be a fine film, but it’s not a great film. The problem is that Allen’s characters are rarely more than stereotypes designed to move the plot along. They’re like refugees from TV sit-coms, minus the canned laughter.

One of the saving graces of Blue Jasmine is that it allows scope for a good actress to make the film her own. Cate Blanchett has been so successful in the lead role there is already frivolous speculation about her Academy Award prospects. Another plus is that we don’t see Allen himself, or one of those male leads who act as his proxy, such as Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris.

The story is firmly centred around the character of Jasmine, a former New York socialite who has fallen on hard times after the imprisonment and suicide of her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin) – a hedge fund tycoon caught with his hand in the till.

We meet a distracted Jasmine at San Francisco airport, raving at a woman who has had the unhappy experience of sitting next to her on a flght from New York. The Chanel jacket and mongrammed Louis Vuitton luggage are the last vestiges of Jasmine’s former life. The taxi drops her at a dingy apartment in the Mission district, belonging to her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Her plunge to the bottom has begun.

Ginger is a divorced mother of two, who works as a check-out chick at the local supermarket, and goes out with Chilli (Bobbly Cannavale), a loud, macho garage mechanic. There is scope for some obvious comedy in Ginger’s attempts to ease Jasmine back into the stream of life. She drags her sister out on a painful double date with Chili and his friend, Eddie (Max Casella). She encourages Jasmine to take a job as a receptionist with a local dentist, who soon develops amorous intentions. Throughout these ordeals Jasmine pops Xanax and sips booze, as her thoughts return obsessively to the past.

The flashbacks reveal the gilded life she led, with the huge Manhattan apartment, the place in the Hamptons, the gala events, the clothes and trinkets. It also shows how her ultra-smooth husband was cheating on both her and his clients. He even cheated Ginger and her former husband, Augie, with a dud investment.

The only talent Jasmine cultivated during her marriage was a knack for interior design, and she is convinced this is her path to re-enter the charmed circles. In her befuddled mind she feels she is already an interior designer, lacking only a certificate and clients.

At a party she meets a wealthy widower and aspiring politician, named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), and it seems she may be back on track. The problem is that Jasmine’s entire life to this point has been a lie – or more charitably, a delusion. She constructs the kind of persona that will  impress Dwight, but has actually lost sight of the boundary between reality and fantasy.

For Blanchett, the challenge was to play a character who is herself playing a role, while gradually coming apart at the seams. Another swig of vodka, another handful of pills, and Jasmine’s fragile stability keeps ebbing away.

It’s impossible to overlook the similarities between Jasmine and Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire – a character that Blanchett recently played on stage. Yet Blue Jasmine is a comic counterpart of that violent, overheated drama. Jasmine’s self-esteem has been constructed from snobbery, designer labels and cocktail parties, not from any sense of Southern nobility; while Ginger’s boyfriend, Chili, is no Marlon Brando.

The story is a fable about the desolate state of the American dream in the 21st century – which now translates into an orgy of material goods to be acquired by any means, fair or foul. In comparison to Hal, the amoral Wall Street villain, there is a fundamental decency in the unpretentious, working-class types Jasmine meets in San Francisco. Does Allen really believe this? Almost certainly not, but he prefers the Gingers and Chilis of this world to the social X-rays and merchant bankers.

Ultimately, Blue Jasmine is a comedy of resignation, in which those who are propelled beyond their natural station in life are doomed, like Icarus, to plummet back to earth. No wonder the film has proven popular: it provides comfort for the vast majority of us who will never attain those dizzying heights. We’re asked to accept that the root cause of Jasmine’s sufferings is her inability to realise it’s more fun to be a pleb. It’s Blanchett’s achievement to make us feel those sufferings as Allen turns the screws ever tighter.

Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo is a film that has already had a false start in Australia. The movie I saw at a long-range preview several months ago has been supplanted by a new version that is 36 minutes shorter. This will be a source of frustration for cinephiles who would always prefer to see the original director’s cut, and will suspect they are missing crucial scenes. This is exactly the way I’d feel if I hadn’t seen the long version.

For a film that is one relentless torrent of visual invention, the missing 36 minutes probably represents several million euros’ worth of over-heated imagination. Objectively speaking, it may also be the difference between many viewers staying till the end, or walking out with arms wrapped round their heads.

Gondry came to prominence as a maker of bizarre video clips for performers such as Björk. Despite earning his credentials as a fully-fledged motion picture director, with films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), he can’t shake off that music video mentality. Go onto YouTube and check out his clips for Björk’s Army of Me or Human Behaviour, and imagine watching 99 minutes of this eye candy (let alone 135 minutes!)

The film is based on the 1947 novel L’Écume des jours, (lit. ‘The foam/froth/scum of the days’) by Boris Vian –writer, engineer and jazz musician – which has been variously translated as Froth on the Daydream and Mood Indigo. As a dedicated bibliomaniac I have both translations, and can report that Gondry has stuck closely to Vian’s story, a Surrealistic fairy-tale of modern life which Raymond Queneau hyperbollically described as “the greatest love novel of our time”.

It’s a curious fact that Boris Vian’s last moments were spent attending the 1959 screening of a movie made from another of his books. Shortly after the film began he leapt up to denounce it, had a massive heart attack, and died en route to hospital. One wonders what he would have made of Gondry’s efforts?

He may have approved. Many of the scenes in the novel would have been virtually unfilmable without the aid of stop-motion animation and other contemporary techniques. It could be that the cinema has finally caught up with Vian’s fecund imagination. It’s more debatable whether Gondry has captured the magic of the love story, between Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou). The movie is such a roller-coaster ride that character development is virtually impossible, even with two highly sympathetic leads.

If one began describing all the unusual details, the elaborate games, the peculiar set pieces, the list would extend for pages. The story begins in Colin’s apartment where everything is alive and squirming, from the door bell, which scuttles across the floor like a crazed cockroach, to his shoes, and the meals prepared for him by his chef, Nicolas (Omar Sy). They share the rooms with a tiny mouse-man, and their dishes with Colin’s friend, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), who spends every centime he earns on books and tracts by the famous philosopher, Jean-Sol Partre.

Although Colin is rich and idle, he has amused himself by inventing a Pianocktail machine that mixes drinks according to the notes and tunes played on a keyboard. Above all, he wants to fall in love, and will have his wish fulfilled when he meets the beautiful Chloé at a party where everyone dances with long, rubbery legs. The crux of the story is their courtship and marriage, given a tragic twist when Chloé finds a waterlily growing in her lung. As Colin strives to cure his bride he uses up his funds and watches the colour drain out of their lives.

Alas, such a summary conveys almost nothing about the nature of this film, which is either a work of genius or a monumental self-indulgence. Even allowing for the 36 minute reduction, and not without regrets, I incline towards the latter position.

 

Blue Jasmine, USA, rated M, 98 mins

Mood Indigo, France/Belgium, rated M, 99 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 14, 2013