Saturday, 8 July 2017

Stardust Memories (1980)

Perhaps the first film to truly address Allen's preoccupation with dangerous, volatile women (based, one presumes, on his marriage to his second wife, Louise Lasser) Stardust Memories is also the first to acknowledge where Allen was at this point in his career. Manhattan was an incredible peak to reach but, coming off the back of the Bergman-inspired Interiors, it is clear that Allen's growing maturity as a filmmaker was offset by the reception from his audience who wondered where all the jokes had gone. 

Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker whose starting to confuse his paying public and studio bosses alike with his growing seriousness. Since his friend Nat Bernstein died, Sandy professes to no longer feel funny and he is plagued with the sobering thought that nothing is immortal and that we are all doomed to die, including the world itself - what is the point in telling jokes and making movies? 

With ironic timing, Sandy is invited to an assessment of his life's work in the shape of a retrospective of his movies at the Stardust Hotel, just as he finds himself assessing his personal life and his place in the grand scheme of things. Grappling with this existential ennui, he begins to fear he is losing control of his life, just like his former love Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), a mentally unbalanced actress.  He finds himself more and more drawn to examining, dissecting and obsessing over her and their time together, to the detriment of his current relationship with Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault), a French woman with two children. He becomes close to Daisy (Jessica Harper) a classical musician in attendance at the retrospective who reminds him of Dorrie, whilst fending off the various, eccentric attentions and requests of his many fans.

Crucial to understanding the central message of Stardust Memories is what is shown in the film within a film, which sees Sandy seated on a train full of unhappy people. Across the tracks is another train, full of happy people (including a kiss blowing, pre-fame Sharon Stone) and Sandy desperately tries to change trains to no avail. The film closes with Sandy and the passengers from both trains at a garbage dump, much to the incomprehension of the studio executives who demand a new ending. The message is that it doesn't matter what we do in life, whether we're lucky or unlucky, we all end up in the same place. We all end up dead, we just have to try and enjoy our time on earth while we can. 

Crucially, Sandy himself can only realise this when he has his own brush with death. At a UFO party in a field outside of the retrospective, Sandy comes face to face with a fan who may or may not pull a gun on him. The scenes that follow suggest Sandy has been killed, but eventually it is revealed that he only fainted. Nevertheless this gives him the rebirth he required and, realising he is lucky (lucky to have forged a successful, well paid career for telling jokes, as opposed to his school friend who is a taxi driver and feels unhappy with his lot, and lucky to have Isobel) he sheds his previous immaturity and preoccupation with Dorrie to return to Isobel and her children.

Stylistically, Stardust Memories is a very interesting film. There's more than a touch of Fellini about it, not only in the nods to the semi-autobiographical 8 1/2, but also in the interesting and unusual faces of Sandy's fans, who repeatedly hove into view with their gushing praise or their demands. It's quite telling too that the film allows Sandy and Daisy to discuss De Sica's 1948 Italian Neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, making the point that the bicycle represents a livelihood to the working class hero of the piece, but the middle classes Sandy knows can only preoccupy themselves with looks, diets,  love, sex and vague philosophy - much like himself in fact. 

For me though, Stardust Memories must impressive visual moment is in the flashback scene which purports to be the last time Sandy saw Dorrie, in some kind of psychiatric hospital. The fragile grip she possessed on her mental state is shown to be rapidly slipping away in a series of devastatingly effective jump-cuts with Rampling face on and close up to the camera. It's a world away from the director of Sleeper or Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) and, as such, one could well imagine a cinema audience in 1980 wondering, just like Sandy's fans, where all the jokes are.

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