“To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.”
Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories is a deeply personal film, but saying that doesn’t really set it apart from any other Woody Allen film. After all, the vast majority of his movies tend to feel as if they’ve been assembled from Allen’s unique collection of deep questions, fears, cultural fetishes and idiosyncrasies. Even so, perhaps more than any other Allen film, Stardust Memories allows us to feel as if we have been plugged directly into Allen’s brain. It’s an inescapably self-aware feedback loop of philosophical, romantic and artistic angst that is somehow enriched by its own inability to find meaning in the world.
Allen plays Sandy Bates, a successful filmmaker who found fame and critical success with a series of goofy comedies and is now gravitating towards more serious-minded material. Much of the film is set in and around a film festival, where Sandy is constantly harassed by fans who are eager to use him as their gateway to stardom (they want to pitch him a script idea, or arrange a business meeting, or secure a small role in his next movie, or just sleep with him for bragging rights).
Meanwhile, Sandy finds himself struggling to choose between two different women: his quiet, intelligent girlfriend Daisy (Jessica Harper, Phantom of the Paradise) and his warm, nurturing mistress Isabel (Marie-Christine Barrault, Table for Five). The process is further complicated by Sandy’s vivid memories of his troubled ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling, The Verdict).
Sandy’s career is a pretty obvious reflection of Allen’s (starting with silly comic romps and gradually gravitating towards more arthouse-style material), and Stardust Memories perhaps gives us some self-deprecating insight into what drove Allen to make something like Interiors. Everyone loves Sandy’s unique comic voice and intellectual wit, but Sandy feels as if his silly cinematic trifles aren’t quite enough. He should be doing something more substantial, saying something more meaningful, actively working to make the world better… right? He doesn’t actually feel real passion for any particular issue, but feels passionate about the general idea of putting on a show of profundity.
The film draws a lot from Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, including a sense of good-humored self-awareness about the abundance of existential despair it’s serving up. Allen knows exactly how all of this self-indulgent hand-wringing looks, but he can’t help himself: this is the path he must follow until he finds something (or finds nothing, which might also count as something). It’s a movie that constantly seems to be folding in on itself, peeling back layers of its narrative as it proceeds and alternating freely between the past and the present, reality and hallucination, whimsy and weightiness. “You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control,” Sandy says. Slyly, Stardust Memories suggests that even art may not be so easy to wrangle.
At times, Stardust Memories looks like one of those Allen films taking a semi-comic path to a grand statement on what life is all about, but every almost epiphany (and there are a lot of them) seems to be undercut by something that follows. There’s a sense of longing that permeates (and elevates) the whole film, and there are interesting parallels between Sandy’s cinematic desires and his romantic ones. Yes, Allen seems more invested in Sandy’s struggle to choose between Daisy and Isabel than he does in examining/acknowledging Sandy’s fundamental sleaziness, but the material gains resonance when fused with Sandy’s struggle to figure out which direction he ought to be going in as a filmmaker. Maddeningly and wondrously, there’s beauty and imperfection in everything.
Stardust Memories (Blu-ray) offers a gorgeous 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, presenting Gordon Willis’ superb black-and-white cinematography with exceptional detail and depth. Shadow delineation is excellent, black levels are impressive and there’s a moderate amount of natural grain present. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is simple, but sounds impressively healthy and clean: dialogue is presented with clarity, and Allen’s usual collection of vintage sounds sound rich and full. Supplements are limited to an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Stardust Memories is a fascinating Allen film that exists at the halfway point between his broad comedies and his artier, more serious-minded films. It’s worth revisiting.