“Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming,” says Jasmine, the lead character in Woody Allen’s film "Blue Jasmine." But in the end, Jasmine doesn’t take to the streets screaming. She fades into the sad, solipsistic Hell of the lies she’s told herself for years.
The movie opens as Jasmine and her monogrammed luggage arrive at her sister Ginger’s shabby little San Francisco apartment.
Ginger: Jasmine! Oh my god!
Jasmine (pouring herself a big glass of vodka): Look at you! Your place is homey. The flight was bumpy. The food was awful and you’d think, first class…
Ginger: I thought you were tapped out.
Jasmine: I’m dead broke. Really, I mean the government took everything.
Ginger (smiling as she changes the subject): All I can say is you look great.
Jasmine: Now who’s lying?
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin) and first class defined their life from their posh Manhattan apartment to their beach house in the Hamptons.
The best food, best wine, sparkling jewelry, designer clothes and lavish parties — Jasmine and Hal spared no expenses as cornerstones of Manhattan’s social elite. After all, Hal was a phenomenally successful investor promising and delivering huge profits with minimal risk. When Ginger and husband won the lottery, even they invested with Hal.
Allen tells Jasmine’s riches-to-rags story through a series of flashbacks.
In one, Jasmine assures her friends that she knows nothing about Hal’s business. When he wants her to sign something, she just signs it, trusting him completely.
In another, we learn the secret to Hal’s success: lies. Hal is a con man as one, "all smiles and no soul," as one reviewer put it. He’s Bernie Madoff, only not as likable. When he goes to jail, everybody loses everything.
The tension in the film is what Jasmine knew and when she knew it. Did she really know nothing about the business despite conversations about barely legal deals and hiding money? Did she really not see the abundant evidence that Hal had multiple mistresses including some of her friends? And when Ginger and her husband announced their lottery windfall, was she really innocent as she encouraged them to invest with Hal rather than starting their own business?
This much is clear: as long as she avoided knowing, her life of wealth, social standing and freedom continued along smoothly. But when she rocked the boat, it imploded, leaving her alone, mumbling bitterly to herself, and fading further and further into unreality.
I thought about Jasmine at church Sunday. The Gospel reading was the parable of the rich man who lived in a fine house, dressed in the finest clothes and “feasted sumptuously every day” and Lazarus, who lived on the street, was covered with sores and teetered on the edge of starvation (Luke 16:19-31).
After the two died, their roles are reversed: Lazarus enjoyed the consolations of Heaven while the rich man was a wick in one of Hell’s eternal flames. Luxury, said the pastor in our well-to-do parish, has a way of separating us from reality. Hence Jasmine (and how many others?), who for the sake of the lush life, wills herself to believe anything that will preserve that life.
Hell in Jesus’ parable is flame. In C.S. Lewis’s imaginative bus trip from Hell to the outskirts of Heaven, The Great Divorce, Hell is not yet flame. Instead it’s Jasmine’s Hell: lies and unreality.
Hell in the book is a sprawling city where people build whatever they wish wherever they wish. The catch is that no matter how palatial, the houses can’t keep the rain out. They’re as illusory as they are grand. In Hell, everyone lives in a lie.
“Hell is a state of mind,” a wise saint tells the main character as he ponders staying in Heaven, “and every state of mind, left to itself, every shuttering up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind — is, in the end, Hell.”
“But Heaven,” he goes on, “is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains.”
Our world is plastic, insulated, image-driven and filled with thousands of minor luxuries. Ever day we either choose to live heavenly truth in our personal, sexual, family, economic, political, community and spiritual lives or, with Jasmine, we fade into the hellish unreality that comes of living the lie. And we do it with no one to blame but ourselves.
James Tonkowich is a writer and scholar at The Institute on Religion & Democracy where his focus is the intersection between faith and the public square, where worldview makes all the difference in the world. Jim worked with Chuck Colson, managing his daily BreakPoint radio commentary, founding a magazine, writing, speaking, and developing curriculum including the Centurions Program. He is a regular contributor to ReligionToday.com and also works with The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, Oxford House Research, and other policy institutes. Learn more about Jim at JimTonkowich.com.