The Advantages of Being Imaginary: My Love Affair with The Purple Rose of Cairo

I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?”

It is very hard for me to try to express how truly special I believe The Purple Rose of Cairo to be. Woody Allen’s thirteenth film as a director is one which the famously self-criticising filmmaker regards to be one of his finest works, and it is easy for me to see why. Now, whenever I am questioning my own desire to study cinema, or worrying about the potentially harmful effects of living your life purely in a form of escapism, I think of The Purple Rose of Cairo. For me, it perfectly encapsulates the joy of cinema but also the danger of escaping into another world; it’s funny, heartwarming but also incredibly bittersweet and sad, defining my love affair with cinema in a way that no other film can or could.

Allen’s cinematic fantasy revolves around Cecillia, played by Mia Farrow, who is locked into an abusive marriage and an unhappy job as a waitress, around the time of the Great Depression in 1935. To escape from her problems (and her husband) she goes to the cinema, where the handsome hero of the film jumps down into the real world to be with her and only her. Soon she is caught in a strange, fantastical love triangle, where she has to choose between the fictitious handsome character of the film, or his real-life double, the actor who plays him. Allen is presenting a cinephile with an impossible choice; jump into the imaginary, but wonderful world of the cinema with a dashing hero, or choose reality, and all the perils and uncertainties that come with the modern-world. Understandably, and sensibly, Cecillia chooses reality.

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But he abandons her.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is so full of joy in so many areas; it’s bursting with heartwarming moments and brilliant jokes, which is typical of early Woody Allen. However, just like in other Woody Allen classics (Manhattan in particular), the wit and the joy are punctured by a moment of pure grief. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, the audience is tricked, just like Cecilia, into accepting the reality presented by the film; it makes no sense for Gil Shepard, the actor, to fall head over heels for Cecilia after only briefly meeting her, and the revelation that he was using her the entire time should come as no surprise to her nor the audience. Yet, it is still utterly devastating. Allen, in submerging the audience in such cinematic treats throughout the movie, and delivering such a consistently funny script, tricks the viewer into expecting a typical Hollywood happy ending. Instead, Cecilia, who is now homeless, jobless and heartbroken, does the only thing she knows will bring her joy; going back to the cinema.

It’s in its ending that The Purple Rose of Cairo really makes me think about my own relationship with the big screen and the wider world of cinema. Some find solace in this ending; at her lowest moment, Cecilia seems to find hope and joy in the beauty of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing ‘cheek-to-cheek’ in the iconic Top Hat. Even when everything has fallen apart in her life, cinema is there to pick Cecelia back up and give her laughter and wonder. This interpretation of the ending appeals to me personally; there have been points, as I’m sure there have been for every type of cinephile, where cinema has saved them in a particularly bad moment. Cinema has undoubtedly saved a lot of people, me and Cecilia included, and so maybe this final shot is a celebration of the power of cinema, and how it can help those in need escape from their lives for just a few fantastic hours.

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However, I think the more likely mood that Allen wished to convey is one of sadness, one of pain and desperation, and this is where the other aspect of my passion for cinema establishes itself. Is it healthy to immerse yourself in fiction so deeply? For every moment I love studying and learning about cinema, doubts always manage to creep in as to whether it’s a healthy thing to devote your life too. The ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo is absolutely extraordinary to me, in that it both perfectly conveys my love for cinema and escapism, and also the fear and doubts I have about immersing myself too deeply. The Purple Rose of Cairo fully defines my love for cinema, and even the doubts I have about my own passions. It is such a subtly intelligent movie; it has so many brilliant and accessible jokes, but also the potential and quality to truly make you think about your own relationship with cinema and the reasons why you even watch movies in the first place. What more could you ask for from a movie?

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