The movies are a dream, where our unfulfilled desires come to life. The movies are a kind of wish fulfillment. Not least of all for Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a woman who lives her unfortunate existence as a Depression era housewife to an alcoholic and abusive husband, works a lousy job at a diner as a waitress, and tries to alleviate her sorrows at the movies. She sees one particular film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, again and again, gazing at the screen with a singular and yet universal longing, her only source of happiness. And after one screening, one of the characters, the dashing Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) literally walks off the screen and into the real world. And the real world is nothing beautiful, not compared to the screen.
Granted, it’s hard to really say that any one film out of director Woody Allen’s filmography is his so-called masterpiece, but The Purple Rose of Cairo certainly qualifies for its mix of darkness and light; a visual articulation of the reconciliation between happiness and misery, fiction and reality.
Tom Baxter knows how to say all the right things. Because he’s fiction, a dramatic character created by someone else. And yet, it doesn’t change the fact that he is entirely beguiling and that poor Cecilia is completely taken with the person.
It isn’t that Cecilia can’t distinguish between reality and fiction, as I doubt that Allen is that condescending or disingenuous to film audiences, but more the fact that we don’t want to distinguish between the two. The cinema’s pleasures are escapist and it’s where we go in times of need. We want to go into the world of the film, and everything Tom says makes it more and more appealing: “Where I come from, people are consistent and reliable.”
There’s some amusing intertext in the film, with the rest of the characters from the film within the film complaining about the lack of narrative action and the audience whining about the fact that the film has come to a standstill, only observing people talking. That might be a sly jab at audiences less inclined to see some more art house fare where people talk like the films of Jean-Luc Godard or even something like Louis Malles’ My Dinner with Andre (which stars and was co-written by Allen alum Wallace Shawn).
Its premise is essentially an inversion of the great dream gag from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., in which the dreaming Buster steps into the screen and interacts with the film characters. Clever though it is, the difference between Keaton’s vision and Allen’s is this heavy sense of melancholy. The pleasures that exist in reality, when Tom Baxter is off the screen, are only momentary. And yet, those pleasures are worth it for both Cecilia and Tom. They’re transient, but buoyant and powerful. Even in a brief kiss there’s a sense of vigor.
It is altogether rather stunning how the energy and dynamicism of Cecilia and Tom really transforms a frame, rendering it from dull and flat to heart swelling and robust. Even in the desolate amusement park, the silhouettes of the two feel there, feel real. He says to her with sincerity, “Look at it this way: how many times is a man so taken with a woman that he walks off the screen to get her?” Isn’t that the kind of stuff that dreams are made of?
But it doesn’t last. Does it ever?
Filled with humanity and pathos, Allen is able to understand what about the cinema is so appealing. Pedro Almodóvar once said, “Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.” And although it doesn’t last, every moment counts.