“How fascinating. You make love without fading out?”
‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’, directed by Woody Allen in 1985, is an American fantasy comedy set in New Jersey during the Great Depression. Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a waitress who is in an unhappy marriage and takes refuge in the local cinema in the evenings. She watches a new RKO film called ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’, and during it one of the characters, a pith-helmeted archaeologist called Tom Baxter, played by Jeff Daniels, speaks directly to her and then steps out of the screen. He then begins to romance Cecilia, but his absence from the film traps his co-characters in the cinema with no way of telling their story. Meanwhile the actor who plays Baxter, Gil Shepherd, also played by Jeff Daniels’, arrives in the town with the film’s producer to try to fix the problem and return Baxter to where he belongs. This results in a strange love-triangle between Baxter, Cecilia and Shepherd. The joy of this film is the understated reaction to a fictional character suddenly leaving the screen, the comedy in Celilia’s dilemma about whether she can date a unreal person, and the romance of the movies contrasted with the grim reality of the Depression. Allen perfectly captures the sense of escape the movies can bring, and to this end he recreates both the 1930s off-screen and the style and look of the films for the time in the movie-within-the-movie. It’s also packed with Allen’s characteristically fast-paced and witty dialogue, playing heavily on the philosophical knottiness of fiction and reality colliding. It’s a sad, simple story with a complex and fantastical concept, a close relation to Allen’s later, and brilliant, ‘Midnight in Paris’.
Would I recommend it? Yes – watch in a double bill with Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock Jr.’ for a similar concept and a similar, playful approach to the technology of the cinema.