Stardust Memories (1980)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper, Marie-Christine Barrault, Tony Roberts

I would never want to trade places with a celebrity. Life is hard enough without your every move being watched and scrutinized. To have to deal with paparazzi (the only legalized form of stalking), crazy fans who can’t tell the difference between the characters on the screen and the actors who portray them, critics who think themselves smarter than everyone else, and studio executives who think they know even more because they have all the money… No thanks. Other people can have that life, but not me. I can’t conceive of how I could ever enjoy myself, always wishing I were somewhere else. Maybe even somewhen else. I value my privacy far too much.

Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is an award-winning filmmaker who is battling with the studio over how his latest movie should resolve itself, and dealing with an inept housekeeper who is one step away from burning down the house while trying to cook a rabbit. At the same time, he is attending a film festival where all the crazies come out. The consensus among the critics is that they prefer his “earlier, funnier movies.” Fans randomly approach him for autographs, rookie actors/writers try to impress him with their script ideas, and the ladies all want to be with him. Sandy probably feels a lot like a Stretch Armstrong toy. One female fan, wearing a T-shirt bearing Sandy’s image, even sneaks into his bedroom looking for “meaningless sex.” She can’t understand his hesitation. It’s not that he doesn’t want to (and he eventually does consent), but he’s at a point in his life where only real and honest love will make him feel anything.

The women in Woody Allen’s films have always played a strong role, and it is no different with “Stardust Memories.” In the present time, Sandy finds himself trying to balance attractions he feels for two different ladies: the motherly Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), and the intellectual, dark and mysterious Daisy (Jessica Harper). Isobel presents the possibility of a stable relationship, even as she has two loud and troublesome children from the marriage she left to be with Sandy. Daisy, meanwhile, is more of a puzzle to be solved. There’s less chance of a happy ending with her, but Sandy is intrigued all the same. Part of it is because there’s something about her that reminds him of Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a former lover who had an unstable personality but is nonetheless representative of a brief window in time when, to Sandy, the world seemed perfect. Often, he finds his mind drifting back to memories of time shared with Dorrie for that very reason.

Allen’s previous films (excluding “Interiors,” which he directed but did not star) all spotlighted either one or two women in particular. Because he highlights three in “Stardust Memories,” it could be said that none of them gets as many scenes as they should. This is especially true in the case of Daisy. Whether because of my adoration for Jessica Harper, or because Daisy is simply a more interesting character, I found myself wishing we could get to know her a little bit more than we do. Allen also has a knack for giving future Hollywood stars their first big break. In the first scene of “Stardust Memories,” when Sandy looks through the window of his train and sees the more lively group of passengers on the adjacent train, it’s Sharon Stone who blows him a kiss.

“Stardust Memories” is Allen’s homage to Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2.” It really helps to have seen that movie before seeing this one in terms of being wise to all the references, the most obvious one being the opening scene onboard the train, replacing the car from “8 1/2.” I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that either film helps you understand the other. Both are about filmmakers stuck in a creative rut, and neither follows a traditional Hollywood narrative. You’ll find yourself constantly struggling during “Stardust Memories” to figure out just what the hell is going on. Just keep in mind the following: everything after the rabbit scene is a dream.

For whatever reason, “Stardust Memories” did not go over very well with fans and critics. I assume that’s because they perceived the movie as presenting an angry tone directed towards them. One of the critics depicted in the film even bears a slight physical resemblance to Roger Ebert, who assigned a mere two-star rating. I would hope the harsh criticism comes from a general confusion about the plot and not from some misguided offense taken because they can’t recognize a parody when they see one. When Allen represents Sandy’s fans as grotesque and clownish, and his critics as pompous know-it-alls, he’s not writing an autobiography here. He is letting you get inside his head, yes, but only to share in his appreciation for the films he’s come to love, which as usual includes both Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. I appreciate that, although he has a certain style of filmmaking that he likes, Allen is not opposed to trying to shake things up. Movies like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” as well as those “earlier, funnier” films of his, are all great… but there’d be no sense in him just remaking those same movies over and over. Particularly if you are doing a marathon of them, which I am in the process of, that could get boring really quickly.

This one, I think, definitely ranks on the high-end of the spectrum for me. It may not be as easy to follow as some of Allen’s more popular titles, but that can only be because it’s so deceptively dense. Multiple viewings are a must in order to take in everything “Stardust Memories” has to offer but, given that it’s only an 88-minute movie, I don’t see that being a problem. Just as Daisy does for Sandy, “Stardust Memories” has that quality about it that persuades me to keep coming back for more.

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