Set during the Great Depression, 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo finds Cecilia (Mia Farrow) disenchanted with her abusive husband and crummy waitressing job but enchanted by the movies. During her fifth viewing of The Purple Rose of Cairo, one of the characters Tom (Jeff Daniels) steps out of the screen to be with her. Think Last Action Hero but in reverse.
The second Woody Allen film in which he does not feature, The Purple Rose of Cairo is not your average fish-out-of-water comedy. It does mine the comic logic of a 1930s movie character living in the real world (he’s never had sex because romantic scenes always fade out before that) but delves beyond its high concept, exploring our relationship with cinema and satirising the industry at the same time.
At one point the egotistical actor who played Tom shows up to confront the character he created (“Didn’t the man who wrote the movie do that?” wonders Cecilia) and also falls in love with her, almost a romantic version of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. And while it is sentimental about movies, the film is acutely aware of their artifice. Films are there to inspire, and The Purple Rose of Cairo succeeds with sparkling dialogue and existential musings.
Like Lamberto Bava’s Demons (released the same year) much of the action takes place at the literal intersection between reality and fantasy, as the theatre audience and remaining characters bicker through the screen. The crowd wants the story to progress the way it normally does, but the characters can’t carry on without Tom. After his Hollywood heroism inspires Celia to leave her husband, they elope back into the film (the only place his prop money has value) and she inspires him to abandon the usual storyline.
Farrow is wondrous as the whimsical waitress, opposite a nicely contrasted dual performance from Daniels. Tom and Cecilia each want what the other has, because each thinks the other is free and they both want to change their ending. Ultimately though Allen suggests that the freedom promised by cinema is found within Cecilia herself. Short and sweet at 84 minutes, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a perfect dose of Farrow.