Rome certainly depicts fame as illusory, but it also has a character declare with some finality that since "life can be cruel and unsatisfying" for rich and poor, famous and unknown, "being a celebrity is definitely better."

"It is better, in the end," Allen insists. "You do lose your private life, but there are also a lot of benefits you get. You get a little bit more of a free ride being famous, and you learn to live with the drawbacks. That should be the worst thing that ever happens to you, that the paparazzi are a pain in the ass."

Allen knows of what he speaks. His filmmaking career is bifurcated by the scandal that began in 1992, when his then-girlfriend Farrow discovered that Allen was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's college-age adopted daughter (with her ex-husband Andre Previn). The revelation of the affair led to a nasty, protracted battle, in the courts and in the press, over custody of the three children, one natural and two adopted, whom Allen and Farrow had been raising together.

Woody Allen and the cast of To Rome With Love.
Philippe Antonello
Woody Allen and the cast of To Rome With Love.
Judy Davis as Phyllis (left), Woody Allen as Jerry, Alison Pill as Hayley, and Flavio Parenti as Michelangelo.
Philippe Antonello
Judy Davis as Phyllis (left), Woody Allen as Jerry, Alison Pill as Hayley, and Flavio Parenti as Michelangelo.

Which brings us to the most constant of Allen's themes, explored in Rome in Page's segment, in which Eisenberg's character, for no particular (or at least defensible) reason, finds himself falling for tempestuous, unstable Monica, behind the back of his stable, gorgeous live-in girlfriend, and against the warnings of Baldwin's elder onlooker. That the heart wants what it wants when it wants it, in defiance of logic or advice, has long driven Allen's romantic stories — think of his character's desperate attempt to salvage his relationship with teenage Mariel Hemingway at the end of Manhattan, or the mad-scientist spoof in Stardust Memories, in which Allen conducts an experiment on his hot, crazy love interest and a plain, sane, sensible match, switching their personalities to put the stable woman in the body of the fox ... only to fall in love with the now-nuts plain Jane. Allen has returned to this theme with a fury in recent years, in films as tonally disparate as the sweaty, threesome-teasing travelogue Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the screwball Whatever Works, in which Woody surrogate Larry David marries a much younger hayseed played by Evan Rachel Wood.

"The heart wants what it wants" is more than a theme of Allen's films; it's also perhaps the filmmaker's best-known statement on his own life. Allen used the phrase in a no-holds-barred interview with Walter Isaacson, published in Time magazine in 1992, on the matter of Allen's relationship with his now-wife (Allen and Soon-Yi Previn married in 1997). The interview's final quote — "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that" — could be Allen's epitaph, a thematic summary of both this most infamous aspect of Allen's personal life and many of his most lasting films.

Certainly, it propels his new film's most resonant plotline. In Rome, Eisenberg's character admits that his shift in affection lacks any rational explanation, while the Baldwin character seems to be judging the love triangle from the remove of age but not necessarily with accrued wisdom. At one point, Page's character turns to Baldwin and says, "You will never understand women." He fires back, "That's been proven."

That Allen is still making films about men grappling with the illogic of love, well into his 70s, particularly in light of his own life experience, gives the work the weight of tragedy. He's been using his art to ask these questions for 40 years, and he still hasn't figured it out.

"About the important things in life, you learn nothing," Allen acknowledges. "I know this, I'm older now. It's really true."

----------

The character Allen plays in Rome is unhappily retired. "I miss work," he admits to his psychoanalyst wife, played by Judy Davis, who is unsympathetic to her husband's fear of spending his dotage drooling in front of a TV. If this is not direct autobiography, it's only because Allen — who has been widely quoted lamenting having aged out of romantic leads in his own movies — cannot imagine putting himself in that position.

"I don't know what I'd do if I retired," he says. "I don't fish."

He has a reputation for working every day — the day editing finishes on one film, so goes the legend, he types the first words of the next screenplay. He insists it's not as grueling a pace as it sounds.

"You finish a film and then, OK, it's finished. And then you sit home, and what do you do? The normal things. I go to the movies, take a walk, go to a basketball game. So what happens? A week passes, two weeks pass, and I'm not gonna do that the rest of my life, so I start to write something.

"You know, it just evolves naturally," he adds. "You sit around the house, and you start to work on something after a few days or a few weeks, because otherwise it's boring."

For Allen, work is a given; it's just a question of finding the mechanism to keep doing it his way. "I'd certainly be interested in anyone that came to me with money to make a film, because that's always a scramble. But they would have to tolerate my idiosyncrasies, and that's where I always strike out. I don't let anybody read the script. So the film company would have to put the money in blindly; they couldn't say anything about casting; they couldn't see dailies; they'd have to put the money in a brown paper bag and then see the film when it's ready. And very, very few people are willing to do that."

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