07/31/2013 12:33 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Hit and Myth: Blue Jasmine

Being blue, a blue moon, with nods to A Streetcar Named Desire: Woody Allen's new film Blue Jasmine delivers an anatomy of a breakdown.

Written and directed by Woody Allen, it stars the extraordinary Cate Blanchett as Jasmine French -- the wife of a Bernie Madoff type named Hal (expertly played by Alec Baldwin) -- who's caught in a downward spiral of melancholia. After collapsing in New York, a broke/broken Jasmine arrives in San Francisco to stay with her younger divorced sister Ginger (the excellent Sally Hawkins) in her working class apartment. Jasmine has no job, no funds; her former husband has died. She drinks martinis and pops Xanax to get through each day. She reflects constantly on what her life used to be.

In Portrait of the Blue Lady: The Character of Melancholy, Jungian analyst Lyn Cowan, Ph.D., describes Dame Melancholy as "the Blue Lady" of "fierce introspection, a passionate preoccupation with the past, the ability to see far and deeply within, the constraints of too much thought that never, or only with painful slowness, seems to move forward into action" (3-4).

In the opening image, Allen gives us the blue sky and white clouds as Jasmine flies in first class from the east coast to California. We later learn from a woman seated nearby that Jasmine has talked non-stop to herself for the entire flight. Allen shows that Jasmine has difficulty separating the present and the past, often musing aloud as memories of her former glamorous life replay in her mind. We know that Jasmine is traumatized by something major, but we're not sure exactly what until the end of the film.

There are several times that Jasmine is costumed wearing a blue top, but most of the blue in the film comes from the ocean and sky in beach settings, either in the spectacular east coast house owned by Jasmine and Hal, or in seaside scenes in San Francisco with Ginger, or in the tony, newly purchased home of Jasmine's California suitor Dwight (Peter Skaarsgard). Images of Jasmine in most of the film are frequently and dangerously liminal -- at once on the cusp of water and land, delusion and sanity, past and present.

Blue is also in the film musically. The 1934 song "Blue Moon" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart is featured in the score and dialogue. The lyric line of "Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone/Without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own" is especially meaningful to Jasmine. It's the song that was playing when she first met Hal. The lyric line points to the rareness of the blue moon as an astronomical event, and in the film, it's a metaphor for Jasmine's current predicament. A nocturnal-sexual quality to her identity is reinforced when she describes the Jasmine flower as a night-bloomer, to her new paramour Dwight. But what she doesn't tell him, among other things, is the truth about her past and that her real name is Jeanette, not Jasmine.

The references to Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire are also part of the mix throughout the film. Even the title character's name "Jasmine French" seems to mirror "Blanche DuBois," as the color of the jasmine flower is white, and DuBois is a French name. Sexual advances from a dentist (Michael Stulbarg), for whom Jasmine eventually works as a receptionist, echo some of Blanche's problems with Mitch in Streetcar. The ongoing friction between Chili (Bobby Cannavale), Ginger's latest boyfriend, and Jasmine reflects outer aspects of Stanley and Blanche. A scene involving watching a fight on television with Chili's friends seems based upon the famous poker scene with Stanley's buddies in Williams' play. The dynamic between Jasmine and Ginger shares similarities, though not entirely, of the Blanche/Stella relationship.

Cowan writes in Portrait of the Blue Lady: "There is a continuous tradition from antiquity recognizing that melancholia is an affliction given by the gods, and particularly an affliction accompanying greatness" (7). In Allen's film, Jasmine's former "greatness" is based upon her social circles, due to her wealth, and her flair for fashion and style. Beautiful Jasmine always knew what designers to wear, and which décor is considered classic. Jasmine's extravagant values are especially in focus in the flashback scenes with Sally and her ex-husband Augie (with a moving performance from Andrew Dice Clay) when they come to visit Jasmine and Hal in New York after winning the lottery.

Gradually, things do improve for Jasmine in San Francisco. As she rebrands herself and becomes involved with Dwight, it seems as if she will perhaps shake her past and forge a new life. Maybe Jasmine's reconsideration of her early days will yield the path to promising middle years? And yet, given the nuances of Blanchett's exquisite, fragile performance throughout, we sense that's too good to be true. Allen resists a happy ending, and delivers instead an indelibly tragic character portrait, caught in the clutch of blueness.