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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is a beloved filmmaker struggling to get approval from his studio to release his latest film, a surrealist and cynical look at the suffering inherent in human life. After the massive success of Sandy’s early “funny” films, the studio doesn’t understand why he’s decided to spit in the face of guaranteed commercial success. And Sandy’s woes are complicated by a film retrospective being held celebrating his career at a beautiful, beach side resort. Neurotic and loath to spend a weekend with so many complete strangers, there are few places Sandy would rather be less than this celebration. But Sandy’s filmography has become bigger than himself and so he is swept away for a weekend of ass-kissers, well-wishers, and mega-fans.

And all the while, past and present melt together in a haze of fantasy, introspection, and desire. Sandy reflects on all of the women in his life including his lost great love Dorie (Melancholia‘s Charlotte Rampling), his long-time mistress Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), and a troubled fan he meets at his retrospective (Jessica Harper). One moment, Sandy may be going through the motions of explaining his old films and the next second, you’re seeing snippets of his childhood fused with entirely fictional imaginings of the highs and lows of his tempestuous relationship with the manic-depressive Dorie. A conversation on the social context of The Bicycle Thief can be interrupted by a foray into a flying saucer convention. Nothing is impossible in Stardust Memories.

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The film was viciously panned when it was released, and it’s somewhat easy to see why (thankfully, though, it’s stature has risen in the intervening years). It would be far too simple to interpret Stardust Memories as a bitter attack by a narcissistic filmmaker on the fans and press that shot him into stardom in the first place. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Stardust Memories is a recognition that there’s room in one artist for both the tragic and the comedic… that there isn’t a clear line between art for edification and art for pleasure. It is a celebration of love while also an assessment of the impossibility of clean and simple romance for so many. It’s a playful reproach of fans who think they are entitled to an artist simply because they love his work, but it’s also an acknowledgement that artists wouldn’t be where they are without their fans.

Woody Allen’s best films have never dealt in simplicity. Midnight in Paris peers into every facet of both the beauty of nostalgia as well as the risks of wallowing too deeply in that well, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona tackles the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of some form of polyamory in honest romantic relationships. And Stardust Memories is among Allen’s most complex films, not only thematically but structurally. The film draws equally from 8 1/2, Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, and Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, and the film’s tone is an equal mix of Allen’s early nebbish humor and the melancholic tragicomedy of late Jim Jarmusch films like Broken Flowers. You can’t put Stardust Memories in any easy categories.

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Stardust Memories is also perhaps the height of the supremely productive pairing of Woody Allen and the late, great cinematographer Gordon Willis. Deliberately evoking the visual style of Ingmar Bergman’s collaborations with Sven Nykvist (particularly The Silence), Stardust Memories oozes late 1950s/1960s European arthouse style but with that “just short of sentimental” style that Allen and Willis mastered with Manhattan. And although the film is visually slated after Bergman, it is overflowing with more Fellini homages than I could properly count. The fixation with the beach, beautiful women, and Woody Allen’s sunglasses ribbed straight from Marcello Mastroianni make Stardust Memories a joy for cinephiles who love getting lost in Allen’s clear love for the history of his medium.

Charlotte Rampling and Jessica Harper play two variations on a theme and Harper’s emotional resemblance to Rampling is what draws Sandy to her in the first place, and the two rank high among the illustrious canon of complex and tragic Woody Allen leading ladies. Both are more fragile and broken than even Sandy, but those moments when they are able to break free of their depression and illness, they have a warmth and beauty that draws Sandy like a fly away from the more stable Isobel. As much as Stardust Memories is about the artistic process, it is also about the self-destructive and redemptive nature of romantic love, and it wouldn’t be possible without fiery performances from Rampling and Harper.

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The worst thing that can be said about Stardust Memories is that it runs a good ten to fifteen minutes longer than it should have. The ending isn’t bad. It’s quite good in fact, but it offers such a powerful and natural ending point involving a gorgeous long take with Charlotte Rampling and then continues from there. And it’s quite easy to get past this minor shortcoming. Stardust Memories is one of the most glorious celebrations of the cinematic form and what it means to those who love it the most that’s ever been made. And while the film has all the emotional and philosophical depth of Allen’s later films, Woody proved that he could still do his “early funny” stuff too.

Final Score: A

 

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