Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen – USA) 98 minutes
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Nugu-ui ttal-do anin Haewon) (Hong Sang-soo – South Korea) 90 minutes
The auteur theory has fallen from grace in recent decades, even in its native France, but, for all its faults, it is still applicable to a fairly broad tranche of cinema, though little of it, admittedly, commercial. And, it must be remembered that finding common themes, styles and concerns through a director’s work is no guarantee of quality. Woody Allen is a case in point: barely a year has gone by over the past four decades where he has not turned out a film – his latest, Blue Jasmine, is his 43rd theatrical release. Allen’s industrial output is driven by treating his career as a job – he has never re-watched any of his films once the final cut is in the can. He famously works on set 9 to 5 whenever possible, and has never liked straying too far from Manhattan, though over the last decade he has broken with that habit.
An unfortunate side-effect of Allen’s prolificness has been quality control. Over the past two decades, his films have been of varying worth – ranging from the surprisingly smart (Match Point, You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger, Anything Else) to the unspeakably wretched (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, To Rome With Love). Still, regardless of its merits, every one is unmistakably a Woody Allen film; you might even say the inconsistency is proof of his status as a serious artist – who wouldn’t go like that if they cranked films out with such dizzying regularity? His recent films are far below the quality of his work in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the gags were far more polished and funnier, the characterisation more thorough and the films as a whole possessed of a breezy insouciance that is usually absent these days. But, given Woody’s longevity and the continuity of theme and style. apparent in his work over decades, you suspect that he was a second-rank filmmaker all along, no matter how much one might love Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose or Radio Days. They are better than his current work but their concerns are similarly limited. That is certainly how he sees it – he has often said that he has never produced a classic film to rival Citizen Kane or La Règle du jeu.
Blue Jasmine is Allen’s finest film in some years, but it is likely to be a false dawn like other bright moments in his recent filmography. It’s far from a perfect film but there is a surprising amount of meat to it. We first see the title character Jasmine on a flight from New York to San Francisco, talking incessantly to her neighbour, all the way through the airport. At first the glamour deficit between Cate Blanchett and an older unknown character actor suggests Jasmine is quite a big shot, but the veil falls when the other lady rushes away from her as soon as her luggage arrives on the carousel. It is a wonderfully economical way of dramatising Jasmine’s hyper-neurotic state and fall from grace while also being a ballsy way of introducing one’s star in such an unflattering light.
Jasmine is moving to the west coast to be with her half-sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whom she wanted little to do with during her years married to hedge-fund guru Hal (Alec Baldwin). Now that Hal’s dodgy dealings have been rumbled by the Feds, Jasmine is trying to set herself up in life, having never worked for a living before. Blue-collar Ginger has split up with her ex-husband, Augie, who harbours resentment against both Jasmine and Hal over an ill-fated investment. She is now going out with Chilli (Bobby Canavale), whom Jasmine doesn’t care for much, calling him a carbon copy of Augie, and her derision is reciprocated in full.
Jasmine’s efforts to set herself up as an interior designer are stymied by lack of funds, her proclivity for pills and vodka martinis and her determinedness to wrench Ginger away from Chilli. When she meets a blue-nosed diplomat (a brilliantly smug Peter Sarsgaard) things appear to be looking up but her past, she finds, is never really past. Too often of late, the performances in Allen’s films have been cursory and obvious; here though they are a joy – true in energy and detail. Dice Clay in particular is excellent, as is Louis CK as a smooth-talking, ingenuous hi-fi salesman and Hawkins, a less hyper version of her down-to-earth Holly in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. It is Blanchett that is the greatest of all though; her portrayal of the self-deluded pillar of entitlement that is Jasmine is masterful. It teeters on the brink between mocking humour and terrifying alienation and the film as a whole strikes this balance incredibly well. There are flaws certainly – Allen’s squares the problem of filming an American film outside New York for the first time by populating San Francisco with Brooklyners – but Blue Jasmine is a creditable return to form, possibly the last good film Allen will ever make.
Another prolific director is the Korean Hong Sang-soo – Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is his eleventh feature in as many years. His films are usually shot on the hoof, on low budgets and are deceptively light. They also resemble each other a lot, often featuring as lead character a sad-sack middle-aged film director suffering a pained comedy of manners due to his philandering with younger women. His latest film is a slight variation on that, with the younger woman, Haewon (Jeung Eun-chae) the central character; she has been having an on-off affair with one of her film lecturers, Seongjun (Lee Seon-gyun). The film starts with Haewon’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in five years (this is never explained), announcing she is leaving for Canada and won’t be coming back. Haewon is a loner – she appears to have few friends (partly because of a failed relationship) and her supposed Eurasian parentage seems to bother some of her less enlightened classmates.
Like much of Hong’s work, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is an intimiste chamber piece, with little of grand dramatic note happening. It is a succession of chance (or not so chance) encounters in the street, boozy, soju-sodden meals, and situations of sometimes excruciating embarrassment. Hong has a limited stylistic palette but it’s a very effective one – he favours sudden zooms which have a jarring effect similar to someone in your company acting unpredictably. His films are often brief slices of personal history, narrated in a voice-over that is palpably older and wiser, and while the humour is always to the fore, there is a bittersweet melancholy underpinning it.
There are also things in the film that seem at first throwaway but which upon reflection appear to be more significant. An example in Haewon is an encounter in the opening moments with Jane Birkin, who is asking for directions, and who tells Haewon she has similar features to her own daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Upon first sight, it looks like a pointless gimmick, a tacked-on cameo that is an echo of Hong’s previous film In Another Country, which featured Isabelle Huppert adrift in Korea, armed only with bad English to negotiate. Birkin’s cameo soon acquires a deeper meaning though when we realise how alone Haewon, a young woman both beautiful and smart, is in the world, and why has her own mother not been in touch with her for five years? Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is yet another limpid, economical work from Hong Sang-soo that does a lot with very little. Though a regular at Cannes in recent years, Hong has failed to impress English-speaking critics much. He is adulated in France though (hence Birkin and Huppert’s collaboration, and his excellent 2008 film Night and Day was set in Paris), which is not surprising. More than any director currently working, he resembles the late Éric Rohmer. Hong Sang-soo’s deftly amusing chamber pieces show him to be a worthy successor to a New Wave great.