Because Annie Hall and Manhattan, the two highly revered comedies that preceded 1980’s Stardust Memories, concerned themselves with characters whose insecurities led to the demise of their relationships, Woody Allen’s somewhat polarizing 30-year-old homage to 8 1/2 surprised me in its reversal of the old break-up stand-by, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Sandy Bates (Allen), the successful comedic filmmaker in Stardust Memories, could safely say to his chronically depressed lover Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), “It’s not me, it’s you.” While he bears the bulk of the blame for the setbacks in his current relationships (thanks to a mental breakdown of sorts), Sandy’s most cherished romance wasn’t sabotaged by the self-hatred and neurosis we’ve come to expect from Allen’s stories, but rather by a cloud of melancholy constantly hovering over Dorrie.
So now, Sandy’s problem is guilt. The memories of Dorrie and his own inability to save her from her state torment him. While Allen has always joked about depression and doesn’t shy away from doing so here, he also treats it as the very dark, disturbing issue it really is — not heavy-handedly, but with sensitivity, balancing it with his comedy and satire in a way that gives Stardust Memories a very subtle, but amazing and lingering overcast feel.
At a small seaside town attending a film retrospective in his honor, Sandy finds himself (sometimes quite literally) haunted by memories, particularly around the Hotel Stardust, a place where his past joys, failures, and fears mingle with his present dilemmas. He’s seriously dating Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) but among the rabid fans at the festival calling for him to go back to making funnier movies, Sandy comes across Daisy (Jessica Harper), a young violinist who mysteriously reminds him of his dear Dorrie.
The film’s many flashbacks, whisked into the story’s timeline, reveal a Dorrie who was a depressed mess for 28 days out of the month, but boy, the two good days? They were really good. Through the bad times, the paranoia and the Electra complex (a partner to Sandy’s Oedipus complex, deliciously teased in a fusion of birthday memories), Sandy, in some ways a take on the typical regret-motivated action hero, still thinks he has the power to save Dorrie. When he ultimately cannot, he finds himself in search of lost time.
After Annie Hall and Manhattan, you could safely say that Woody Allen had a certain command over his directorial craft, and it’s most evident in Stardust Memories when, in a story driven by the recollection of key moments in one’s life, the two most remarkable and engaging memories on screen are the two most important memories to the character: Sandy’s best and worst memories of Dorrie.
In a beautifully tragic sequence of quick cuts and close-ups, Allen sensitively reveals Dorrie’s deteriorated state of mind through a devastating one-sided conversation, portraying the last time Sandy saw her in the way he probably remembers it: the weary face of what is now a stranger, staring at him, issuing a rapid series of sobering signs of mood disorder.
But when Sandy recalls his favorite memory of Dorrie, Allen uses longer close-ups of the two to absorb a simple but special moment between them. No dialogue, just a Louis Armstrong song in the background as Sandy eats pudding and Dorrie, lying on the floor, soft and beautiful in the Sunday light, looks back at her love. The scene tarries, as if Sandy, in remembering this moment, hangs on for just a bit longer, reluctant to let go.
Despite the sublimity of moments as this one, and even with Allen’s hostile-but-no-less-enjoyable shots at critics, audiences, and movie executives, the film’s atmosphere remains under Dorrie’s cloud of dreariness in the director’s earnest attempt to infuse you with the moods of Sandy and Dorrie. It makes Stardust Memories feel much heavier, much more melancholy than some of his other comedies, but no less poignant.
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