"The Purple Rose of Cairo" poetically defines what it means to love movies through the story of Cecilia, an ordinary woman whose cinematic passion plays as a back-and-forth ticket to escape from the Great Depression (literally).
But this era also coincided with the Golden Age of Hollywood films : adventure movies, romances, screwball comedies or films-noir, the decade started with an immediate transition from the silent era to the talkies, allowing so many genres to finally emerge on the screen. And people came to see movies because of this constant capacity to surprise, to create new worlds, to become the ultimate escapism with a popular appeal, incarnated by the magical opening image of Astaire and Rogers dancing "Cheek to Cheek". Cinema is ordinary people living extraordinary moments.
This is what loving movies is about, and this translates Cecilia's obsession with films as a desperate need to forget about her lousy husband and her waitress' job, two situations she handles with a poignant, if not annoying, clumsiness, beautifully embodied by Mia Farrow's natural vulnerability. Cecilia, like anyone, can go to the movies, but more than anyone, she needs them. The only bits of enthusiasm in her voice and her eyes are hinted when she talks about movies, and her shy heart suddenly becomes passionate, only a movie lover can understand this weird state of constant amazement.
Cecilia's endearing quality also is her poignant weakness, as she uses movies to fantasize on improbable love stories the way women used to do with literary romances. Cecilia enjoys films in an old fashioned way, not an intellectual appreciation or some sort of quest for a deep meaning. This is the nostalgic aspect of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" , an ode to these times where distraction and amusement were simple, when people's eyes were easily amazed and their hearts easily thrilled, when Cecilia needed to watch the titular film, over and over again, to forget about the job she just lost, and the husband (Danny Aiello) she couldn't lose. In a way, the film's atmosphere foreshadows the tone of Woody Allen's "Radio Days" with an extra fantasy element (literally again)
Cecilia indeed lives in a fantasy that spectacularly materializes on the pivotal moment where "The Purple Rose" hero emerges from the screen to finally meet her, provoking a chaotic situation that none of the audience or the still on-screen characters can handle. And this is where Allen's genius writing emerges too, when I applauded, excited to see where would lead the romance between Cecilia and Tom Baxter, the explorer, played by the actor Gil Sheperd, played by Jeff Daniels. And Allen's approach is subtly iconoclast in the way it totally denudes the characters by underlining the gap between their unreal qualities and the real world.
First fascinated, we start looking at them with very compassionate eyes. Tom is like a child impressed by this world, his life freed from any script's diktat, but whose journey with the prostitutes reveals him as an asexual character ... no money, no sex, no religion, Baxter's Utopian background betrays the Disney-like innocence of these old movies and the dead-end aspect of his real-world adventure. The irony is that he mirrors Cecilia's own condition, as a woman with no job, no money, not even a sexual life, so she would be living the same life with Tom but happily. So the process in reversed and Cecilia gets in the film to live with Tom, in a world where the only colors inhabit Tom and Cecilia's hearts.
But as much as we enjoy seeing the thought-provoking inventive script exploited to its core, this part only reflects the dream-like quality of the movies, as illustrated in the most hilarious moment in the film, when the restaurant maitre d' realizes he's allowed to do whatever he wants, and starts a spectacular tap dance number. It reminded me of these lucid dreams where you allow yourself to go as far as you can, movies are nothing but artistic lucid dreams, after all. And the most delightful ones lead to the most painful wakes, and I consider the script to be one of the best thanks to the genius idea of confronting Tom Baxter with Gil Shepherd who, in an ironic twist, pretends to be in love with Cecilia in his attempt to convince his alter-ego to get back to screen.
What follows is a love triangle and a cruel dilemma for Cecilia, torn between an unreal and a virtual reality, virtual not as the opposite of real, but of actual, of Cecilia's current life. What is virtual is potential, might happen and will happen, and this is where Cecilia's fragile naivety conditions the sad conclusion of the film, confirming that nothing in Allen's scripts is irrelevant. Cecilia chooses Gil over Tom, Tom understanding real life's cruelty gets back on-screen and Gil to Hollywood after having accomplished his mission, with Cecilia as a collateral heart's damage. Realizing her one-way ticket to Paradise was phony, she sadly returns back to her husband who warned her that life was not like the movies. Allen just furnished the cynical proof.
Cecilia was obsessed with unreal stuff, while her heart was broken by something virtual, because of her trust on a real man, not a character, this is the alibi for movies, and Allen's ending with Cecilia enjoying again the sight of Astaire and Rogers proves that she doesn't blame it on the movies. The bittersweet last shot shows Cecilia as one of these poor souls, not heroic in their acts, but in their faith in humanity and people, despite the encountered treacheries and deceptions, the ending reminds of "Night of Cabiria", Fellini's masterpiece about another woman's heart victim of her own goodness.
And despite all the hell Cecilia went through, her illuminated eyes prove that with movies, she'll always have her back-and-forth ticket for Heaven, even for one short moment, she'll feel she is in Heaven ...