The Purple Rose of Cairo.
1985, Woody Allen
Several of the most acclaimed directors over time have presented films that they utilize as their personal love letters to cinema. The Purple Rose of Cairo is Woody Allen’s most direct approach to this, and it may be the finest example of a director going for that theme that I’ve seen. In 1930s New Jersey, down-on-her-luck Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is amazed when she goes to the cinema and the screen character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) walks out of the screen and takes her away. It’s an inventive and entertaining premise full of potential, but what Allen is able to do with it was unexpected and quite emotional. As studio heads and Gil Shepherd, the actor who portrays Tom, try to get Tom back into the screen, Cecilia is taken on a journey of self-discovery, all through this theme of cinema’s ability to take you away from your troubles.
The basic set-up is a brilliant idea in and of itself, but it’s one that easily could have fallen apart in the hands of a less capable director. The genius of the premise alone speaks to the fact that Woody is one of the most creative, impressive minds we’ve seen in cinema but it’s in the execution that he once again demonstrates that he’s one of the most skilled filmmakers to ever come forth in American cinema. It’s a great idea but without the talent to back it up that could have been the entire film, just a one-shot premise that gets lazy as it goes on. Instead, Allen takes the idea and uses it to get to the real root of his picture, the gorgeous theme about the escapism of film. It’s a love letter told in a fluid, beautiful and incredibly empathetic way, with a likeable and well-rounded lead character.
Cecilia could have easily come across as this loose flake of a woman, but the way Allen writes her makes her this heartbreaking woman who is just looking for an escape from her awful situation. She is in a loveless marriage where she is abused and cheated on, has no job and no way out (setting it during the Depression was a stroke of genius), but she finds herself being fought over by two men she had fallen in love with from seeing them on screen. In the hands of a less capable writer there could have been a lot of misogyny here as she is pushed around by and from man to man, but Allen keeps it feeling so true to this character and her motivations all the way through. As much as I love Allen’s work with actresses like Diane Keaton and Diane Wiest (who turns in a nice small performance here as a lady of the night), my favorite muse of his is always going to be Farrow. He was so great at writing to her skills as an actress and here the two of them create a character who is so good-natured and kind, it’s impossible not to root for her right from the start. The whole film all I wanted was to see her be happy. It’s a real shame how her career has turned since their split, because she was such a great talent when they were together.
It’s interesting watching the film now, in 2012, a year after Woddy having released Midnight In Paris, as the two films seem to have parallel ideas. Paris is about looking for the beauty in what you have in your real life, not trying to escape into nostalgia because when you look deep enough things are the same as they’ve always been. Cairo, however is all about the power of movies, how no matter what awful things are occurring in your life you can always use films to escape and transport you away, even if it’s only for a little while. What’s interesting about Cairo though is how it keys into that same idea that when you look deep enough into anything it can turn out to be just the same as anything else. The movie star that you fall for because he’s handsome and charming can be just as much of a bastard as the man in your bedroom. It’s that final moment though, with Cecilia returning to the cinema when she’s brought back down to an even lower depth than when she started, that we see the true beauty of Allen’s love letter. On Cecilia’s face, we see her smile, her heart light up as she escapes from all of her troubles in the pure, simple delight of watching a great film. Sometimes you just need to let yourself be taken away.
Film #131 of The 365 Film Challenge.