Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) is a man dissatisfied with life. He has just turned in a film to his studio backers, and it ends with his character trapped on a moving train carriage full of miserable or sinister people while he sees a group of other passengers in a parallel carriage having a great time. He wishes he were on that one, but he is heading for the dump... the only problem with this is that everyone knows Sandy for being a comedian, and they love his comic movies, so the studio, his fans and the critics wonder what the hell is going on with him - no change there, then.
If Woody Allen doesn't say that The Purple Rose of Cairo is his favourite of his own films, then the other one he will name is Stardust Memories, and many have pondered over the years since its release whether he is deliberately trying to alienate himself from those who truly loved his films. Of course, his latter day weakly humorous romps might have done that job far better, but with this film at least there's a fierce, searching intelligence behind the misanthropy, and even if it closes with a happy ending of sorts, it still sets thoughts racing about its creator.
In a way this is a work in two minds, in that it apparently sets out to shoot down Allen's appreciators while still offering them much to fascinate them about their cinematic hero. It's as if he wanted it both ways, so that he was pleased that he was getting favourable attention, yet could not stand the extent of that fawning and adulation, so here his Sandy character is approached every time he ventures out, and masochistically goes to a festival of his own work where he is surrounded by people who want a part of him, and to be part of his life - one woman (Amy Wright) even waits for him in his bed one night, with her husband parked outside.
So this may be an exaggeration, as surely the real Allen couldn't have been asked for autographs every other second he walked the streets, but perhaps that's precisely how it felt - or at least feels to Sandy. See, it's all too easy to confuse the writer, director and actor with the fictional character; this is an homage to Federico Fellini's 8½ after all, a film about a beleaguered moviemaker, and it could have been that Allen was drawn to pay tribute. But really, in spite of his denials, what did he expect? There are so many connections with his life and work here that should he be so adamant that art and life be so separate?
You do, on the other hand, get the impression that Allen would rather we muse over the questions about existence that Sandy brings up. The fictional director frets over how humanity can allow so much suffering in the world, and cannot see any meaning in what happens here when he believes that there should be a clear answer to his intellectual dilemmas. But maybe he does receive his answer, in that he comes to the conclusion that he can only be true to himself and those closest to him: we see flashbacks to his relationship with the troubled Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) and how she has coloured his perceptions thereafter, understanding that if she can move on, so can he.
If this sounds crushingly heavy in tone, then Allen is wise to leaven the drama with some very funny lines and scenes, whether it's an offhand observation or a sequence from one of Sandy's comedies, which include the lead character's hostility going on the rampage after escaping while he was taking a nap, or Sandy's conversation with the space aliens which naturally answers nothing, as if to say even the most powerful beings don't have the necessary insight, so where does that leave us? And as a bonus, Gordon Willis's black and white cinematography is utterly captivating, making every face interesting from the stars to the freaks who forever pester Sandy. If finally you don't really buy all of this, it is provocative and reflective in the best manner, and it could be that Allen doesn't wholly accept Sandy's neuroses either. But that's for him to know.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.