Is there anything more to learn about narcissism? Have you ever suspected that the people at the top - our leaders, our politicians etc. - may be more interested in themselves than anyone else? And, what happens when narcissism and wealth collide? Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine, is like a harsh spotlight on many of these questions.
But first, let's look at how narcissistic behavior is infecting our society. It's been thirty years since Christopher Lasch told us in The Culture of Narcissism (1979) that we were entering an historic period selfishness and manipulation. I agree.
While many films give us bread and circus and keep us entertained, in Blue Jasmine,Woody Allen takes aim at the American elite. It’s not a pleasant sight.
In Blue Jasmine, we are dealing with the money elite. Loosely based on the Bernie Madoff story, Alec Baldwin plays Hal, a narcissist come sociopath who has convinced everyone in his circle to invest in his wildly successful schemes. He has homes around the world, a mansion in the Hamptons, a massive apartment on Park Avenue, and oodles of admirers, men and women alike. The protagonist is his wife, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), who in turn plays the role of perfect hostess; beautiful, elegant, snobby, “charitable” and elite.
Jasmine is left with nothing but anger and desperation. She moves in with her San Francisco based sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and more trouble develops. Not only is Jasmine a spoiled little girl in a woman’s body, but she spins out of control, taking advantage of all in her wake.
Ginger is in love with Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and Jasmine does what she can to ruin it. Ginger lost all her money once to Hal, and now she’s on the verge of losing the man of her dreams too. Allen invites us to feel sympathy for Jasmine, given the story is told through her eyes. We don’t.
Narcissism Gone Wild:
The tale here is of narcissism gone wild. Bereft of all her money and friends, Jasmine breaks down. But, in the process she uses everyone who cares for her. This is a characteristic of narcissism, the ability to only see the world through your eyes, and to use others as pawns towards meeting your needs. Yes, pain does make people more self centered…but Jasmine and Hal were two of a kind.
Allen’s work is important because it looks at the dark side of people we sometimes envy. Many of us find some interest in the rich, famous or brilliant. We sense that these are lives better lived. I believe that Allen wants us to grow up and enjoy the life we get, not the ones we are told to admire.
Maybe he’s figuring that out for himself as well.
After all, Blue Jasmine is loosely based on Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. A crazed highbrow sister, Blanche, moves in and disrupts the life of Stella, her lowbrow sibling. Stella and her husband, Stanley in Streetcar are more disturbed than Ginger and Chili in Blue Jasmine, but we sense real love. Happiness can be found anywhere, but not with narcissists.
The Value of a Normal Life:
As in many of his films, Woody Allen wants us to see the emptiness of a narcissist – and sociopath. In real life, we read about Wall Street crooks, cover-ups by church officials, and even steroid use in baseball. In each institution there’s a rationalization that overlooking a terrible wrong actually works for the greater good. Jasmine did not want to see...but did see... the corruption of her husband. She looked the other way, in the same way that Major League Baseball ignored steroid abuse for years, the Church hierarchy covered up heinous crimes, and our politicians looked the other way before Lehman went bust.
Where there is narcissism there is little integrity.
Corruption and the Need To Win:
Narcissists want to win, at all costs. The sociopath, which is an extreme form of narcissism, is a person who consciously manipulates others. Narcissists are a bit less Machiavellian. They game themselves into thinking that whatever they are doing is perfectly fine.
After all, narcissists have grandiosity, a form of malignant thinking that makes them feel superior, so the rules that apply to others, don’t apply to them.
Woody Allen asks us, yet again, to recognize that powerful people often are motivated by self interest and urgent rationalizations. He asks us not to idealize the rich, the powerful, the famous or the brilliant. We must grow up for our own good.
It’s a good lesson.
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