The author Shirley Jackson once wrote, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”, and such thinking may go some way to explain the appeal of watching films with a fantasy or escapist element to them. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is a clever and charming exploration of this idea, as well as our relationship with movies, movie characters, and the people who bring them to life. Although the film is a move away from the more usual explorations of contemporary New York, it still has plenty of his familiar tropes, as well as a surprising twist in the tail.
Cecilia (Mia Farrow) lives in Depression era New Jersey, struggling to get by on her waitress wages. Her husband, Monk (Danny Aiello) is no help, spending his days playing pitch and toss with his unemployed friends, and his nights drinking, gambling and occasionally hitting Cecilia. Her only escape is the movie theatre, losing herself week after week in the fluff and glamour on the silver screen. During one viewing of her latest favourite, The Purple Rose of Cairo, the impossible happens – her favourite character, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) comes out of the screen into reality – and declares his love for her. This has serious implications for her marriage – but also for the rest of the characters trapped on screen, who can't move the story forward without their leading man.
The film within a film, The Purple Rose of Cairo is brilliant, a perfect pastiche of the bright and breezy RKO fluff musicals with their mix of beautiful people flitting between big apartments and New York nightclubs, with singers, big bands, and endless champagne. When Baxter steps down into the audience, this takes the film into the world of magical realism described by the writer Matthew Strecher as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”. While atypical of Allen's work overall, it is an area he does move into from time to time, in films such as Play It Again Sam and Midnight in Paris. In addition, as with those films, Allen never explains the cause of the fantastic events, leaving them open to interpretation – is it in people's imagination, some sort of mass hallucination – or has the sheer willpower of a devoted movie fan bought her idol to life?
The characters themselves are a little two dimensional, but in the context of the era, the films Cecilia likes to watch, and the fantastic events depicted, the slightly unnatural sounding dialogue, such as the onscreen characters having a philosophical discussion, does not seem as jarring as it would in a contemporary setting. Farrow helps, bringing a likeable charm to her character, and her sometimes neurotic mannerisms make her the nearest we have to the “Woody Allen” character that usually crops up if the man himself does not in one of his films.
The period detail feels convincing, and the film clearly had some money spent on it, but more importantly, Allen clearly also spent time on the script, and as feels engaged in the subject, so we feel engaged too. The Purple Rose of Cairo is a film about films, one which looks into not just the creative process that lies behind them, but also the relationship between the filmmakers, the fictional characters they create, and the audience who fall in love with them. Here Allen ask questions as to what it really is that we fall in love with – the actor, the character they are playing, or the image we have of them.
The crux of the drama and comedy is the clash between the world of the movies (perfection, order, repetition, happy endings) and that of real life (imperfect, real, chaotic, unhappy endings). Ultimately Allen celebrates both of these for being what they are, and while he does not appear to be favouring one over the other, he seems to suggest that "real" will eventually win out whether we like it or not. This is most evident in the heartbreaking climax, where Allen refuses to pander to the sort of happy endings of classic movie fantasy, even though he celebrates these as good things in their own world.