(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1985)
After a string of well-received “dramedies” – that waved sayonara to the all-out zaniness of his earliest films – imbued with a healthy dose of philosophical, moral, and religious quandary and featured a whole lot of talking, Woody Allen piggybacked on the success of Zelig and created another brief, yet high-concept fantasy with The Purple Rose of Cairo. Eschewing deeper questions raised by the likes of Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, and even Stardust Memories, and choosing to exclude himself from the cast of characters this time around, the film is a considerably lighter affair, but it’s no less significant because of it. In fact, without Allen’s typically garrulous banter on any and every topic, the strength in Purple Rose lies in its singular focus. Allen’s one-two punch of classic filmmaking that is Annie Hall and Manhattan were intentionally all over the place covering the filmmaker’s neuroses, opinions, pitfalls, comedic ticks, passions, and the like in a very short span of time. In contrast, Purple Rose narrows in on Allen’s own cinephilia and a troubling notion bubbling under the surface certainly more paramount than a mere love for the movies.
The set-up is a clever one, indebted to film’s lengthy past: Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a struggling waitress in a greasy diner, lives for going to the movies. In the 1930s amidst the Great Depression, Cecilia’s crummy, abusive husband Monk (Danny Aiello) is out of work, and the pervading national climate is one of utter hopelessness. It’s no wonder then that the cinema becomes a safe haven for Cecilia – a place where she can escape for seventy minutes or so into another world where all will be right by film’s end. At the local theatre, the ticket counter attendant and the projectionist know Cecilia by name, and she’s unafraid to see the same movie multiple times during its initial run. Fed up with Monk pushing her around and sleeping around right under her nose, Cecilia resolves to leave. But, when she finds she has no place to go, she quickly winds up back home. Then, the new film The Purple Rose of Cairo begins showing at the theatre, and Cecilia is hooked. She sees it four or five times, and it’s not long before one of the film’s characters Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) takes notice of her sitting all alone in the audience from up on the screen. Interrupting the continuity of this once-predictable movie, Tom follows an impulse and emerges through the screen into the real world in order to get to know the beautiful young woman so entranced by his movie.
What follows is a fanciful romance as Tom whisks Cecilia off her feet as the charming romantic he was written to be. But, Cecilia wrestles with her own marriage and the obvious fact that Tom isn’t real. Things become even more complicated when the studio responsible for the film sends the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd (also Jeff Daniels) to sort things out. Meanwhile, the characters left behind remain onscreen in some of the film’s funniest moments as they bicker about who’s actually the main character and how hungry they are waiting for Tom to return. This fantasy is clever in a way only Allen could milk, and he knows just how long to do so – Purple Rose is just shy of an hour and a half placing it in line with the pictures Cecilia would have been enthralled by back in the ‘30s. The story is engaging in its own right, but there’s also quite a bit to gawk at throughout. The immeasurably talented Gordon Willis is once again at the helm of Allen’s camera, and he brings this dreary New Jersey town to life with soft pastels and lends credence to the scenes on the screen at the theatre with appropriately sharp black and white photography. It’s a beautiful film to take in, and proof that Allen and Willis were a formidable team to reckon with in the late ‘70s into the late ‘80s.
For the most part, Allen atypically allows sentimentality and nostalgia to do its work on his audience with a subdued, yet winsome sense of humor, but the film’s unexpected finale packs one emotional punch. Cecilia, forced to choose between three men, ultimately gives up on her thankless marriage and bids farewell to Tom recognizing the limitations of his two-dimensional personality. She chooses Gil who has also expressed his love for her, but in the end, it was all a ploy to get Tom back on the screen. When she returns to the theatre to meet him, he’s already on his way back to Hollywood. Capturing Farrow’s quiet, sorrowful emotional collapse in fitting close-up, it’s impossible for your heart not to sink into your stomach. Heartbroken, she shuffles her way into the cinema and sits down to face Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Something of a smile returns to her blank face as she looks on and lets the magic of the movies consume her. Here, Allen suggests a notion both painful and startlingly close to home for many: we’re all fated to some form of escapism when faced with the cruel disappointments of life. Cecilia finds hers at the movies, and Tom walks right through the screen bored with the repetition of his. In some ways, Allen has been here before. He often asserts that we all want what we can’t have, but as a filmmaker and self-proclaimed cinephile, it’s a poignant reminder of what the movies can and do mean for some people.