Woody Allen’s Latest Film Explores the Intersection of Mental Illness and Social Status

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a wrenching and thought-provoking film that finds the legendary auteur taking on very atypical material. Whereas his typical works burst with neurotic humor, whimsy, and exotic settings, his latest film emphasizes drama over comedy and focuses on the harsh realities of present day America. It is a bold divergence for the director and the risk pays off – Blue Jasmine is his best film in nearly 28 years. Allen’s later career may have spawned movies that were funnier(Bullets Over Broadway, Midnight in Paris) and sexier (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), but one would have to go back to 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters to find one as masterful.    

Blue Jasmine marks the 46th film Woody Allen has written and directed in the past 48 years. For those of you who are not film buffs, this is an extraordinary, unparalleled output for a filmmaker. For comparison’s sake, the prolific and esteemed Martin Scorcese released 22 films over the same time span. In fact, one would have to go back to 1981 to find a year that the 77-year-old filmmaker did not have a film reach theaters. However, as we all know, quantity is not synonymous with quality. As you might expect, Allen’s output is maddeningly inconsistent, with at least one ill-conceived mess for every gem. Blue Jasmine is one of his brightest gems, one that is likely to bring more awards for the 23-time Oscar nominee (and 4-time winner).

“Is Blue Jasmine an Occupy Wall Street-era morality tale, or just a deeply absorbing character study? Either way, Allen has given us a whole lot to chew on – and a flawed heroine we’ll remember for a long time.”  – Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press

The film tells the story of Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy, sophisticated, and well-connected New Yorker who has it all. At least that’s how she likes to think of herself. We first see Jasmine sitting in first class on a flight to San Francisco where she narcissistically blabbers about herself to a helpless passenger. But the truth is that by the time the film begins she has lost her money, her status, her family, and her sanity. She is heading to San Francisco to stay with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), until she can get her life gets back on track. Upon her arrival to San Francisco, a remarkable and unnerving tension is set up between the two sisters. Jasmine relentlessly pities and condescends to her lower class sister, while Ginger tiptoes around her deeply delusional and mentally unstable sister, who pops sedatives and drinks liquor by the bottle to calm her nerves.

The film follows Jasmine and Ginger’s rocky reunion and their subsequent searches for love while seamlessly interweaving flashbacks that slowly reveal what led to Jasmine’s current state. To provide too many details would weaken the film’s impact, but suffice it to say that involves an unfathomably wealthy husband who has a penchant for philandering and insider trading (Alec Baldwin). That’s not to say that Jasmine is solely a victim. Rather, the film challenges the viewer by making it painfully clear that a long history of delusional thinking, profound entitlement, and impulsive behavior also brought Jasmine to her current circumstances.

The character of Jasmine is a fascinating one. In fact, Cate Blanchett’s astounding and unsettling performance probably deserves just as much credit as Allen for the film’s success. However, it rises above an intimate character study through the very nature of its subject matter. Jasmine is a member of the 1% who lost it all, subsequently spiraling in social class and losing her (already loose) grip on reality in the process. The result is an exploration of how America’s extraordinary wealth inequality divides the classes. It examines the profound psychological effects that a fall in social status can have for the powerful few and the inability to move up the social ladder can have for the masses.

“There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming” – Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis (Cate Blanchett), Blue Jasmine

We learn early on that Jasmine had a “nervous breakdown” prior to moving to San Francisco that resulted in her wandering through the streets of New York disoriented and talking aloud to herself. However, she only recounts the depths of her psychological woes firsthand in one scene. Interestingly, she shares it with her unruly young nephews, perhaps the only people she comes into contact with in the whole film that she is unconcerned with impressing. (It also occurs during the one unselfish act she carries out in the film, babysitting for her sister while she goes on a date). She tells the children (rather inappropriately) that the cumulative stressors were too much for her to take and she developed a host of symptoms, which led her to receive a wide variety of intensive treatments, including mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, antidepressants, sedatives, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). It is clear from the vast amount of treatments thrown at her that her care providers had no real idea what they were dealing with in Jasmine, which is unsurprising giving her level of diagnostic complexity.

Let’s look at Jasmine’s symptom of wandering the streets talking to herself. Most people would instantly assume this is indicative of a psychotic disorder, namely schizophrenia. However, there is no clear evidence that she is actually perceiving things in her environment that are not there nor does she appear to be experiencing the negative symptoms (e.g., lack of affect, lack of pleasure) that typically accompany such a diagnosis. This symptom could be indicative of a mood disorder, such as bipolar or unipolar depression, which in their extreme manifestations can involve symptoms that resemble psychosis. This symptom could also be due to a form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although it is unclear whether any of the individual stressors Jasmine experienced would truly meet the diagnostic criteria for a traumatic event, the cumulative toll certainly seems capable of producing symptoms similar to those of PTSD. When she is talking to herself, Jasmine could simply be in the throes of intense re-experiencing of her past traumas and simply be losing touch with the present moment.

It is hard to know the true nature of her symptoms for a few reasons. One, we do not have a sense of her premorbid functioning (that is, what she was like before the traumas). We know that she had a fairly pathological personality structure, with features such as pervasive narcissism, lack of empathy, and avoidance of anything unpleasant. However, we are not privy to whether she has ever had psychiatric problems before or if this is a first such episode. True psychosis rarely sets on past the age of 30 except in cases of heavy psychoactive substance usage and trauma to the brain. Second, we have no understanding of her genetics due to the fact that she is adopted and no information is provided about her biological family’s mental health history. Typically, knowing what psychopathology is present in blood relatives can be a helpful (if far from certain) indicator of what the nature of a patient’s mental illness is. Third, some psychiatric symptoms – such as wandering the streets talking to oneself – can have a vast array of complex etiologies and there is no clear diagnostic test to determine the correct one.

Despite the unclear origin and presentation of Jasmine’s symptoms, it is very clear that there is an interpersonal component to her illness. Jasmine is a woman who has been told from a very early age that she was special and was surrounded by people throughout adulthood that directed envy at her. Then she lost her friends, her family, her wealth, her status – everything that she based her identity on. These losses appear to have served as a profound narcissistic injury (blow to her ego in layman’s terms) that likely destabilized her entire sense of self, likely contributing to the onset or exacerbation of profound psychopathology. This may be a more psychoanalytic interpretation of her symptoms than I am typically comfortable with, but it seems quite plausible. And if Woody Allen’s decades in psychoanalysis and love of incorporating its themes into his films are any indications, it is likely what he was going for. (See his 1970s masterpieces Annie Hall and Manhattan as prime examples of Woody Allen’s use of psychoanalysis in film.)

“Comparison up underlies envy, and comparison down underlies scorn, dividing us from each other.” – Susan Fiske, Envy Up, Scorn Down

Jasmine is a fascinating character, but the film is interesting for more reasons than the fact that it doubles as an interesting case study of one woman’s mental illness. Through Jasmine’s interpersonal relationships throughout the film, Woody Allen brilliantly illuminates the psychological theory of social comparison. This theory postulates that individuals are innately driven to compare themselves to one another and that the manner in which they do this has significant implications for their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as for the functioning of groups.

Renowned social psychologist Susan Fiske and colleagues have conducted a large body of research examining how the perceived warmth and competence of a particular group is strongly related to the predominant emotion individuals from these groups elicit from others. They have utilized research methodologies including neuroimaging, behavioral experiments, and attitudinal surveys, and the results generally converge on consistent findings. Those who are high in warmth and competence elicit pride. In America, these groups include the Middle Class and Christians. Those who are high in warmth but low in competence tend to elicit pity. Think the disabled and the elderly. Those are low in warmth but high in competence elicit envy. In America, this tends to be the so-called 1% and racial/ethnic groups that tend to be overrepresented in the group, including Asians and Jews. Those who have the unfortunate distinction of being perceived to be low in warmth and low in competence are scorned. These include welfare recipients and the homeless. Although it’s likely that Woody Allen has never read one of Fiske’s articles, his narrative illustrates her findings rather cleverly.

Let’s take the two low competence groups first. As mentioned, Jasmine clearly pities her younger sister, Ginger. Ginger is high in warmth, however, with a charming, optimistic, and helpful nature, but repeated references are made by both of them that Ginger got “the bad genes.” A likeable person with low ability is precisely the type of person who elicits pity in Fiske’s model and pity is precisely what Jasmine shows her sister, who is a single mother working in a supermarket and living in a cramped apartment. Ginger’s positive qualities are abundant, however, and attract men throughout the film. In fact she has three beaus in the film’s brief running time (played by recent Emmy winners Bobby Cannavale and Louis C.K. and vulgar 1980s comedian Andrew Dice Clay). Jasmine, however, views these men as low warmth and low competence. This elicits scorn in Fiske’s model and scorn them is precisely what Jasmine does. She sees them as not only working class, but also as uncouth, lazy, dishonest, and brutish. Jasmine repeatedly admonishes Ginger for the fact that she can and should pick better men, but Ginger just is not sure she actually can do better.

Now let’s look at the high competence groups. Blue Jasmine is mainly a film about the high competence and low warmth group, which Jasmine exemplifies. In her former life, she is beautiful, connected to powerful people, and unfathomably wealthy.  She elicits envy from most of those around her who find her completely inaccessible yet fantasize about having her life. Of course, envy is not a particularly healthy emotion. It has many deleterious effects on the envied and the envious. One such effect is that of schadenfreude, or the tendency to find pleasure in the misfortune of others. When Jasmine starts experiencing one blow after another, it is clear that many take pleasure in it (including the viewer at times). The film does not have a particularly notable example of someone who is high competence and high warmth, but the one character who comes close is Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming, intelligent, and wealthy widower who aspires to be a Congressman and catches the eye of Jasmine, who sees romancing him as an opportunity to regain her status. Yes, he probably falls into the 1% category, but he has an air of warmth and is arguably met with the least disdain of any character in the film.

The film explores the intersection of Fiske’s theory and mental illness, when it comes to Jasmine’s “nervous breakdown.” Even as she is losing her husband and money, one feels a twinge of schadenfreude because she is still powerful (highly competent in Fiske’s terms). However, after she has lost her status and especially once she becomes a “mad woman” talking to herself in the streets, Jasmine becomes low in competence and low warmth and thus an object of scorn. The shift from eliciting envy to eliciting scorn (or being completely ignored and not eliciting anything at all, as is also often the case with low warmth and low competence groups) is a jarring shift that Jasmine cannot psychologically handle. This shift raises questions not explicitly dealt with in Fiske’s theory, particularly the following: What determines the emotions elicited when an individual shifts categories? and How does the mental health of an individual influence the perceptions of their warmth and competence?

Social comparison is not exclusively a human phenomenon. One only needs to look at the hierarchical structure that forms in communities of certain animal species to know that this phenomenon has evolutionary roots. And as we know, most things that persist throughout evolution are adaptive to some degree. Being able to make swift judgments about one’s status relative to those around them likely does have benefits. But in a society where groups are becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly polarized, our system for making these judgments is likely to falter. And for those of us who value the human dignity of all individuals, the idea that one’s financial status and mental health play such powerful roles in determining another person’s warmth and competence (and ultimately their worth) is a distressing one.

I have heaped praise on Blue Jasmine throughout this article, one might say hyperbolically. I do not mean to mislead you; the film is not for everyone. In fact, many people have found it difficult to watch. Many say that this difficulty is because the central character is so infuriatingly unlikeable. However, my guess is this discomfort comes from the fact that it asks the viewer difficult questions that we are just not equipped to answer.

Sure, Jasmine is easy to hate. But she’s impossible to forget.