The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Woody Allen | 1hr 22min

The story of The Purple Rose of Cairo is so simple it might as well be a fairy tale, or perhaps a fable for twentieth century America. In such dire times as the Great Depression when jobs were being lost and poverty was widespread, the escapism of the movie theatre could let that all fade away for a few hours. Down-on-her-luck waitress Cecilia is no exception. Hollywood gossip is her matter of expertise, and the cinema is where she falls into a dreamy daze, consumed by fantasies acted out by stars who never acknowledge her in return. That is at least until she catches the eye of archaeologist Tom Baxter, a character from the other side of the silver screen. All of a sudden he is walking out of the frame and into reality, much to the shock of her fellow theatre patrons and his fellow movie characters.

A literal breaking of the fourth wall within our own fourth wall as Tom Baxter climbs out of the screen.

At this point in Woody Allen’s career, The Purple Rose of Cairo was about as childishly whimsical as he had gotten, but as much as he indulges in the fanciful imagination of the piece he is also in complete control of this delicate balance of conflicting tones. It is namely the incongruities between reality and fantasy that come to a head as Cecilia herself tries to sort one from the other, painfully considering how she can live a life of bright idealism while trapped in an abusive marriage. The touching vulnerability that Mia Farrow summons up in this role is of an entirely different kind to that which she displayed in Rosemary’s Baby. It is both naïve and disillusioned, seeing the world as it is yet choosing to turn away from it to absorb another where people are “consistent and always reliable.” How crushingly magnificent she is as well in simply sitting and letting her reactions tell entire stories, moving between smiles and tears as Allen dreamily dissolves between her face and the movie screen, forming a bond between the two that cannot be destroyed by anything that happens outside that darkened room.

Long dissolves binding Cecilia to the screen, an inseparable relationship.

But at the end of each movie session the lights inevitably turn back on and Cecilia must once again return to a life where happy endings are rare, and where the most one can really hope for is a bittersweet reconciliation with misfortune. As she discovers, the idealism of fiction can provide an aspirational standard that may inspire positive values and self-confidence, but this is not always enough to wrestle with any issues of real substance. “Where’s the fade out?” Tom asks as he and Cecilia begin to kiss passionately, unfamiliar with a world where sex is not simply implied. His chivalry and romance are certainly desirable, but his claims that he only possesses those since they were “written into my character” suggest that anything that was not instilled in him at conception is not something he can grow to understand.

In this self-aware layering of film conventions within other film conventions, Allen’s comedic writing and directing is simply superb, and demonstrative of the depth of his talent even when not crafting an all-time great screenplay such as Annie Hall. Fourth walls are broken in the most literal manner possible, characters within the ‘fake’ movie reference their own artificial existence, and then every so often he punctures the lightness of the story with a stab of black comedy, addressing the potentially disastrous consequences of both real and fictional worlds meeting. As we learn at one point, the black-and-white characters up on the movie screen are damned back to an empty void of nothingness each time the projector is turned off, and in a narrative twist further along the actor who plays Tom also gets tied up in the farce, complicating the matter with cases of mistaken identity.

Allen lovingly recreates a 1930s style Hollywood montage using the silent film technique of multiple exposure.

This rather simple premise doesn’t outstay its welcome either, as within the film’s brief 82-minute run time Allen keeps the narrative moving in exciting directions, turning his lovingly stylistic construction of a classical black-and-white Hollywood movie into a transgressive artistic choice when the fourth wall is spun around and Cecilia enters Tom’s fictional world. The film grain and slightly tinny sound quality is authentically rendered in detail, but even greater is the montage of their “night out on the town” that affectionately plays into silent film techniques in tremendous ways, creating gorgeously layered collages through multiple exposures. The Purple Rose of Cairo is just as much an ode to the world of movies and moviemaking as it is a fable warning against the temptation to use them as a replacement for living, though it is through its intelligent, enthusiastic screenplay and one of Farrow’s most touchingly sweet screen performances that it transcends its already imaginative premise.

No doubt one of Mia Farrow’s greatest performances, playing this sensitive soul prone to bouts of great joy and heartbreak.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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