Arts and Culture

Eeeuuuwww Jasmine

Woody Allen's latest work, per usual, is full of clues to who he really is.

By Shannon Rupp 8 Feb 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor, whose previous articles can be found here.

Taking sides in the reignited hostilities between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow would be like taking sides in a Greek tragedy. And I mean that literally. Watching the monstrous behaviour of those two recalls classic stories like Medea, in which she murders her sons to get even with their philandering father. Or Oedipus, a rejected child who murders his father and marries his mother.

Or to be exact, it recalls Allen's latest film Blue Jasmine, which made me gasp. Not being a fan of Allen's misogyny-laced films, I didn't get around to seeing it until January after everyone said Cate Blanchett's performance was too good to miss.

Jasmine is obviously meant to be Farrow, which is startling enough, since only a handful of critics even noticed. But that's not what made me gasp. This is: Blue Jasmine invites us to think that Woody Allen did it by casting himself, by proxy, in the role of the criminal husband. 

But since he just wrote a denial that he molested his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan, in the New York Times, I'm wondering what he was thinking when he made that film. I'm not the first critic to spot the Jasmine-as-Mia parallel. Is the film that is supposedly one of his greats just another case of these two flinging mud and having it blowback on them?

That might explain why Farrow resurrected this 20-year-old scandal for no obvious reason in a bizarre Vanity Fair article last October.

When their famously eccentric relationship fell apart after Allen confessed to being in love with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, 19, Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan. According to the article, Allen had been in therapy for "inappropriate behaviour" with Dylan since the day he adopted her. 

In retelling the tale, Farrow implied Allen's biological son Ronan (formerly Satchel) is really the offspring of her ex-husband Frank Sinatra. Photos of Ronan looking like a young blue eyes bounced around the Internet.

Have these people never heard of DNA testing? And what kind of parent discusses a child's parentage in the media?

Accusations flew that this was a publicity stunt for Ronan's upcoming MSNBC show. But I suspect Allen actually fired the first salvo when he made a woman-just-like-Mia the focus of Blue Jasmine.

Consider the plot

In the film, Blanchett gives a tour de force performance as the pampered, narcissistic wife of a Bernie Madoff-style swindler. Bought off with a Chanel wardrobe, pricey baubles, and vacations on yachts, Jasmine is willing to overlook her husband's many white-collar crimes and romantic pecadillos. She even turns a blind eye to the roster of mistresses he parades under her nose. Jasmine blithely tells friends how naive and trusting she is, right up until the husband, 55-ish, announces he's leaving her for a friend's teenage au pair.

Then she rings the FBI, turns him in, and destroys both their lives. Substitute the crime of fleecing vulnerable investors for the alleged crime of exploiting a vulnerable child, and you've got Allen and Farrow's story. 

By the time we meet Jasmine, for whom we feel vaguely sorry as a woman wronged, she is destitute and prone to babbling in the streets. The husband has committed suicide in jail, and her estranged stepson views her as the chief offender.

Her decline from professional wife to unwelcome houseguest at her sister's miserable apartment is told in flashbacks. And I doubt that anyone over 40 watched the scene in which Jasmine confronts her husband (played by sleaze-master Alec Baldwin) about his au pair affair without recalling the headlines of 20 years ago. Farrow found a naughty photo of her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, 19, on Allen's mantel, and before long he was delivering the infamous line -- "the heart wants what the heart wants" -- triggering an eeeuuuwww heard around the world.

In the movie, when Jasmine's husband coolly tells her he's in love with the au pair and planning a new life sans old wife, she becomes hysterical.

"Are you out of your mind? She's a teenager!" Jasmine explodes. "What does that stupidity even mean?"

I bet that is exactly what Farrow said. And as the husband urges Jasmine to be calm and rational, he delivers a line that leaves us in no doubt the fraudster is a stone cold sociopath.

"I want to be honest with you," he says, ensuring we all want to slap him.

The scene is breathtaking: if Jasmine is inspired by Farrow then the husband is Allen, and the filmmaker, who is known for mining his own life, leaves us in no doubt he's a scoundrel.

Parallels to a scandal

I was struck by the director's perverse argument, delivered through the mouth of the estranged stepson, that Jasmine turning a blind eye to her husband's crimes until they inconvenienced her made her the real miscreant: "As disillusioned as I was with him, I hated you more."

Which brings us back to the parallels with the real life scandal.

As I write, Moses, 36, the oldest of the three children Allen and Farrow have together, has issued a statement denying his sister Dylan's heartbreaking claim in the New York Times that her adopted father molested her. Moses is estranged from Farrow now, and reunited with Allen and his sister/stepmother Soon-Yi.

Also batting for Team Allen is Robert B. Weide, a filmmaker who did a PBS documentary on the director and wrote a 5,600-word defence of the man at the Daily Beast. He muddies the waters about the legal history and attacks Farrow for hypocrisy. She is a public supporter of director Roman Polanski, who fled the U.S. after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old.

Weide also notes Farrow's silence about her own brother's conviction for child abuse. John Charles Villiers-Farrow is now serving 10 years. And Weide reminds us Mia was married at 21 to Frank Sinatra, 51. They split up and she had an affair with her next husband, Andre Previn, then 40 and married to someone else.

Allen's lawyer then weighed in, announcing he and his client believe Dylan is not lying. They think that her mother -- characterized as a vengeful woman scorned -- planted a false memory in the seven-year-old's mind and brainwashed her brood into hating Allen.

Team Farrow, however, appears to have the edge in the court of public opinion, not least because Allen dated his girlfriend's daughter, on the sly, while she was still a teenager. And Dylan's recollections are so vivid it seems just plain cruel to doubt her word. And there are his movies.

It always comes back to his movies.

The artist's compulsion

Allen's recurring theme of aged men bedding teenage girls has made my skin crawl since I was a teenage girl watching Manhattan and wondering about the obvious holes in the script. I could see that Mariel Hemingway's mature 17-year-old was meant to be an ironic contrast to the quartet of emotionally-stunted adults behaving like teenagers. But I never understood why all the adults accepted a middle-aged man dating an underage girl.

I went off Allen's films around that time. But I'd watch the occasional flick, and couldn't help but admire his unflinching candour in presenting characters that are stand-ins for him.

"You'd think that guy would rewrite himself, wouldn't you?" I used to joke. But Allen never hesitated to show us who he really is.

I wondered what Allen was thinking when he presented himself by proxy as a narcissist, a sociopath, a philanderer, and worse -- the sort of guy who could give Humbert Humbert a run for his money. But as I watched Blue Jasmine, I began to suspect he has that artist's compulsion to tell the truth as he sees it. And there's no denying his talent as an artist.

So while I may not like Allen's work, I trust that steely nerve he has when it comes to painting unflattering pictures of himself, too. In the question of whodunnit, Blue Jasmine convinced me they both did it.

Leave it for the theatre

Philistines always demand to know the utilitarian purpose for art, and here it is. We're fascinated by stories because they give us a means by which to understand our own lives. I thought it was a nice touch that Allen gave a nod to Tennessee Williams and tipped us off about how we should read Blue Jasmine when he draws parallels between his own malignant narcissist, Jasmine, and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

You can almost hear him whisper, "Look how life and art imitate each other."

But that is also why I'm calling a moratorium on the tsunami of Farrow-Allen scandal updates, and I wish the media would too. The prurient details are just demoralizing when there is no coda in sight. It's kind of like having Electra show up for breakfast uninvited, and then hang around the house for days going on about how mom stepped out on dad, while offering her justification for matricide.

"You're worse than the Minotaur! Get out of my house!" we'd all be screaming inside of a long weekend.

While it's impossible to take sides in a Greek tragedy, I also think it's impossible to live with the monsters who make them. They have their place -- which is in theatre for three hours, tops.

But I do look forward to this story hitting stage, page, and screen a few years from now. I hate to say it, but Blue Jasmine really is a fascinating film, and Blanchett deserves that Oscar.  [Tyee]

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