ToM Best of 2013
Watching people unravel, whether in film or life, can be a shocking experience. In America, we like to see people hit rock bottom, repent, dust themselves off, and climb back to respectability. Such stories offer a clear narrative arc that at this point seems scorched into our serpentine subconscious. In real life, the fall, the brushing of dirt off one’s shoulders, and rising again hardly seems so clear. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re falling, or that what you are holding onto—a moment, a person, or relationship—no longer exists. This past year witnessed two films that documented the fall of two very different, yet very similar women in Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine.
It goes without saying that Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine stands as a stunning achievement, balancing an exhausting pretentiousness with bouts of mental illness. Likewise, Greta Gerwig’s work in Frances Ha, all neo new-wave black and white, captures too well the struggle it becomes to keep your youth alive, especially the way it was post-college, early 20s style. As the years creep by, smoking cigarettes with your best friend in your Brooklyn apartment becomes increasingly hard as adulthood careens forward. For Frances, the first signs of her withering youth emerge when her best friend decides to move in with her boyfriend, a man the two friends mocked privately but who eventually wins over Sophie (Mickey Sumner). I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie that depicts the kind of post-collegiate friendships that develop into platonic romances without resorting to Judd Apatow-like bromances. Few films explore friendship, particularly between two women, with the kind of depth and intensity on display.
Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine tries to hold on as well—to her sanity and high class past. Her attempts end somewhat tragically as the thread of her former life continues to slip away. Jasmine retreats from her disastrous ending in New York, where her charming, sleazy, charlatan of a husband Hal (played outstandingly by Alec Baldwin in a fusion of his roles on 30 Rock and the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, albeit minus the vulgarity of the “you’ve got to have brass balls” speech). Hal has become yet another white collar felon in the age of housing crashes and bank bailouts. Jasmine shacks up with Ginger (Sally Hawkins), her sister who ran away from home at 16 to San Francisco. To Woody Allen’s credit, the movie captures the hardscrabble side of San Francisco, a city today recognized more for its leftist politics, “limousine liberals,” and gay pride parades than its blue collar immigrant past. Andrew Dice Clay (Augie) and Bobby Cannavale (Chili) portray this white ethnic side of SF quite well. Moreover, Ginger (along with her two kids, who elitist New Yorker critic David Denby basically called idiots in his review) provides further evidence of this reality. Undoubtedly if any character draws our sympathy in this film it’s Ginger, a working class mother of two struggling to find both a sense of happiness and stability while buffeted by the well-meaning, low-rent idiocy of Chili.
At first blush, the two films sounds at odds, one an East Coast NYC tale of fading youth and hipsterdom (more than a few critics describe Frances and her friends as another variation of the characters on Lena Dunham’s oft-controversial but never boring HBO series Girls) and the other a West Coast story of attempted rebirth and redemption. Most critics saw in Jasmine an updated Blanche Dubois. Blanchett’s own star turn as Dubois on Broadway in Liv Ullmann’s production of A Streetcar Name Desire only reinforced this opinion. When outlets like the New York Times describe Blanchett’s performance as Dubois as never seeming “more real,” it would be hard not to connect the dots. Yet if one takes a step back, Blanchett’s Jasmine could also represent a curdled, middle-aged version of Frances.
Indeed, as a handful of critics have noted, the two women share much more in common than at first appears. Each struggles to make ends meet, Frances because dancing pays pennies, made worse by the fact that she never broke through in the first place. Both women are defined by class. Frances lives on couches and barely pays rent, yet she runs with the carpetbagging poor, rich kids trying to obscure their privilege by slumming it. Of course, this only works to a point, as Grantland’s Chris Ryan pointed out in a recent podcast, and often ends up only drawing that much more attention to their inherent wealth. Tragically, the carpetbagging poor are often compelling or at least very interesting individuals. They meet famous people, are related to superwealthy individuals who do things like “summer in the Hamptons” and are able to sojourn to Paris on a whim. Granted, Frances travels to Paris on a moment’s notice, but on her Mastercard with poor results for her credit rating. Jasmine’s marriage to Baldwin looks like The Real Housewives of New York writ large, she excels at the things rich socialites think important: shopping, parties, and planning charitable events. If Frances seems keenly aware of her financial precariousness, Jasmine remains blissfully unaware of her own impending disaster. Her sister explains it much simpler terms: whether it be men or money Jasmine simply chooses to “look away” when presented with evidence of infidelity, be it financial or sexual.
Is there anything worse than realizing you’re the last person at the party—the one left to turn out the lights as the voices and laughter fade into the late night? Both Frances and Jasmine are the ones to find out last that the lights are still on, but they have to flip the switch to turn them off. Unfortunately, neither is really ready to do so. Frances realizes her dream of dancing professionally has become highly unlikely and must find a way to adjust. It’s not always pretty ( she falls on her face more than once), but in the end she finds a space for adult Frances. It may not have been what she hoped for, but nor is it tragic. She averts a pre-midlife crisis by running head first into adulthood, even if accidentally.
Jasmine, on the other hand, falls from a great height and continues to descend further though one could argue intermittently. When she meets West Coast scion Peter Sarsgaard, a State Department operative working in Vienna, at a party, Jasmine charms the ambitious future politician. Of course, she tells more than a few lies along the way, revealing that her ex-husband’s duplicity did not end with him. Without spoiling the plot, one should point out that while Baldwin’s guilt seems more than obvious in the film, Jasmine’s complicity remains a bit blurry. A scene near the film’s conclusion will probably convince many viewers of her innocence or guilt, but this judgment will depend largely on how much they empathize with her and whether her actions demonstrate real guilt or simply a woman broken by her husband’s sexual and material infidelities.
The film’s directors and writers deserve some attention as well. Noah Bambauch and Gerwig first worked together in Baumbach’s Greenberg. Soon after Baumbach and long time girlfriend Jennifer Jason Leigh separated, he and Gerwig gravitated toward one another romantically and professionally. With Gerwig, Baumbach’s career has taken a new direction, the acidity of The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg replaced by the frustrating but good hearted ambivalence of Frances Ha. Likewise, Woody Allen, a man stalked by controversy, has seen a rebirth. Midnight in Paris made 150 million worldwide, which the standards of Allen films is a veritable fortune. While many critics chalked Blue Jasmine up as mid-level Allen, it nonetheless captured the impact of the 2008 financial shenanigans in very human ways. Ginger and her ex husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) lost hundreds of thousands when Jasmine encourages them to invest with Baldwin.
The issue of adoption serves as another intersection between the movies. For Frances, her life depends on the kindness of quasi-family, what some writers have called America’s new tribalism, where friends have become as important as blood relatives. Frances’s connection to Sophie stands as the most obvious example. Issues of adoption in Blue Jasmine are starker and more traditional. Both Jasmine and Ginger were adopted, but they clearly consider themselves blood. Yes, they needle one another, verbally spar, and often conflict in numerous ways, mostly because Jasmine seems to be one of the least self-aware people on Earth; she tosses cruelties Ginger’s way fairly frequently. Furthermore, when Sarsgaard shows Jasmine his home, which she volunteers to interior decorate for him, he gushes “we can adopt some children” and then he can run for office. Though in this case, the kids seem as much about political photo ops as any sense of real family. As my wife asked, “Why does Sarsgaard always play characters that seem good initially but always turn out to be douches?”
While Allen deserves credit for portraying adoption so inclusively, treating it as simply another way to build family, how can it not also cause viewers to cringe? This is the same man who married his adopted daughter. As a member of what people call a blended family (often one consisting of biological and adopted children) I can tell you, on this count, Allen is the devil. Applauding Allen for this depiction feels like championing British imperialism for building trains in India.
And then there are the men in both films. Undoubtedly, Ginger’s choices in men could be better. However, Jasmine dogs Chili and Augie, calling them losers on more than one occasion, but seems to forget that her husband was nothing more than a smooth-talking criminal who slept with almost every woman he meets in the film. You can dress a pig up in finery, but you know what? It’s still a pig.
What about Frances on this count? “Undatable,” as one character continually describes her, mostly because he harbors some unspoken feelings for the Brooklyn dancer. Men appear to be an afterthought, nothing when compared with her relationship with Sophie. Francis never replaces that friendship and the void seems apparent, not crushing or anything, but something she must overcome. Then again maybe those years in our early 20s create bonds that simply cannot be recreated as we arc toward our 30s. Jobs, families, ugh, adulthood impose themselves. All that and the fact that nearly every man in Frances Ha acts fecklessly and with little character.
In the end, Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine tell stories about opposite ends of modern life. Being in your late 20s presents a completely different set of factors to adjust to when compared to the fate of an aging socialite who no longer has the wealth to maintain such a lifestyle. Yet, the fact that the two movies intersect in so many ways tells us that what we often think of as opposites are just similar women in differing stages of life. For all the drama of 2013, give thanks that Greta Gerwig and Cate Blanchett delivered such complex portrayals of women in modern America. Hold on to that