For all the things said about Woody Allen, good and bad, he knows what a true cinephile wants to see. A film where someone who is obsessed with the movies is so absorbed by the story, the characters, the essence of the film comes to life, real life.
Mia Farrow is Cecilia, a sweet down-on-her-luck waitress from nowhere New Jersey. On the verge of being fired during the depression with a lousy husband who does nothing but gamble and run around with other women, Cecilia escapes to the cinema, watching movies several times over, getting lost in them. Until one day, after watching the latest from Hollywood, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps out of the frame to be with her.
Cecilia represents the true cinephile. That movie-goer that enjoys every film they watch, even the terrible ones. The ones with a routine and that sit in their seat. Cecilia’s eyes sparkle when she enters the theatre and takes her place, ready for anything. Farrow captures that wonderful feeling with such ease, eager to enjoy anything that is shown to her on screen. But she isn’t just starry eyed and only interested in the superficial side of movies and Hollywood. She knows her films which becomes apparent to Gil Shepard, the actor who plays Tom Baxter. At first he is flattered by Cecilia’s knowledge and praise of his work, but find she understands his characters and what he wanted to convey to the audience is a surprise to him. He himself starts to see why his character has fallen in love with her. Jeff Daniels, in a dual role that is ever so subtle, also stands out in this film – and not just because he literally steps out of the picture. Tom is a hopeless romantic who sees the world in black and white, even when he’s in the ‘real’ world, whereas Gil is trying to carve out a career in Hollywood. Both are in love with Cecilia but, as Gil mentions several times, he’s real but also realistic, which Tim just can’t grasp.
The film within a film has been used many times before and after this film, but what makes this film unique is that the fourth wall isn’t just broken, it’s smashed to pieces. The film’s characters talk back to the audience as they wait for Tom Baxter to return. There are no hysterics, just matter of fact comments and snide comments, which are delightfully humorous. The comedy in the story is Allen at his best. One of the best scenes is where the film characters debate whose story it is and argue about their status and importance. It is as if they are justifying their own existence. It also feels like a slight dig at Hollywood and the type of 2D characters that they churn out. At one point Gil talks about Tom as his creation and expects him to do as he commands, then Cecilia points out that Tom is actually the creation of the writer who wrote the story. The pause that follows is brilliant.
The film is beautifully made, right down to the period it’s set in. New Jersey during the Depression, when movies were a break away from the normal everyday struggle to keep afloat. The movies bring everyone to life, not real life, but a dream that they can be in for a few hours. That’s exactly what this film is – a film about escapism and the pure joy of the movies.
Dir: Woody Allen
Prd: Robert Greenhut
Scr: Woody Allen
Cast: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello
DoP: Gordan Willis
Music: Dick Hyman
Runtime: 82 minutes
The Purple Rose of Cairo is available on DVD now and Blu-ray on 9th January