The thrill of cinema begins much before the opening credits roll in. It commences with the fresh promise of escape. The anticipation is in the air even as you enter the premises of the theatre and sit down in nervous, vivid glee. You want to forget the suffocating tie and the loud traffic, and dissolve into a palette for the filmmaker’s ideas. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is a film that literalises those feelings, finds words for the emotions, and pronounces the escapism of cinema through a disposition of wild fantasy brought to life within the fantasy.
Set in the 1930s Depression era, the film is about Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an exhausted waitress who is infatuated with movies as a subconscious reaction to the troubles in her life. Her husband Monk (Danny Aiello) is a deadbeat who occupies his days shooting craps and drinking on his wife’s income. Her naïvety blinds her to his manipulative behaviour and impudent temper. This pushes her further away from reality at work, where her clumsy mannerisms and constant discourse on films and the elements that revolve around them find her at odds with the employer.
This claustrophobic environment becomes an active breeding ground for her love of films, the local theatre and the world that surrounds cinema. So she begins watching and re-watching runs of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” at the local theatre, an adventure/socialite movie that works just like a Woody Allen film itself: inventively funny, impulsive and full of charming people who talk and express themselves wildly without any inhibitions.
At this point, this film has you by the reins. It has painted the backdrop, coloured the skies golden and shown you what its people are about. There is no going back. Allen’s understanding of the audience and the manipulation of moving images is displayed fully. As Cecilia watches the picture the 5th time, mascara tears roll down her cheeks and her throat is dry from weeping; the protagonist in that picture, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) turns to Cecilia and speaks directly through the fourth wall. His concern for her constant presence at his movie makes him step into the real world, much to the distaste of the other characters.
This sequence is shot so vividly and effectively that this shattering of the illusion reaches us immediately, the real audience. Its effect is consciously powerful and makes us dare to think that the magic could be real. That the people on the screen are somehow real in a sense that isn’t explained but understood nonetheless. Now the music runs in real life, and the words are spoken through real lips. It is an addictive folly, a fantasy of active minds bogged down by the troubles of the predictable world.
Here, Allen hasn’t described the contents of our dreams but instead given us fodder for what we could be capable of imagining. It is a promise to the avid moviegoer, a push towards the election for fantasy instead of reality. Cecilia is enchanted by Baxter and his mannerisms, which were written in a character sketch. He is enthusiastic, optimistic and finds quality in mundane things that had never occupied Cecilia’s mind. His ideals often clash with the real world as he goes about town, while the film still runs in the theatres without his character; the plot is lost, the structure is in tatters and the characters begin to forget their lines in search of purpose. The town is now teetering with excitement around this miracle, while Cecilia and Tom open up to each other in abandoned theme parks and busy restaurants.
Allen’s obsession with the craft and the history of it is blatantly exposed here. We are tricked into a rabbit hole, and find ourselves looking at things that shouldn’t have been possible. The fiction faces us and describes its gears and mechanisms in stupendous honesty. But this film is almost sympathetic in its execution towards its viewers, as if the mundanity of life could be washed away so suddenly and so smoothly. How eventful the contents of the world would be if the dinosaurs stepped out, the bullets swooshed by our ears, and the rain spattered on the avid moviegoer.
It is the intrinsic quality of desire that fills the emptiness of the routine of normal life. Allen describes the real world in the film too, how the studios and the real actors react to this miracle as we do, merging the experiences of the two sets of viewers. It is as if he is showing us the truth in the deception, and how well equipped the viewer is to be tricked into hoping by creating an atmosphere that inspires the very idea of it.
The last frames of the film are occupied by a heartbroken Mia Farrow watching another film in the theatre, swallowing her problems and visiting someone else’s once again. Facing her powerlessness against the world, she requires that the dream must go on. There is shelter to be found if you look for it on the marquee, or create it yourself.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.