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Home Reviews BFI Woody Allen Season Woody at the BFI: Husbands and Wives and The Purple Rose of Cairo
Woody at the BFI: Husbands and Wives and The Purple Rose of Cairo Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Sunday, 22 January 2012 15:44

Jeff Daniels, The Purple Rose of Cairo - BFI Woody Allen season review 

"I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything."

There's something about the surreal tone of Woody Allen, that intelligent silliness, that often reminds me of Monty Python. But unlike Python, Woody's neurotic humour stems from the inherently bleak, futile crappiness of human existence. And, of course, most of the grief (as well as the good bits) come from relationships.

Indeed, for the most part, it isn't a Woody Allen film if two married couples aren't both having affairs - usually with each other. So, to continue this blog-along series with the BFI Woody Allen season, here are some thoughts on two films with particularly tempestuous relationships.


Husbands and Wives (1992)

Just when you thought Woody Allen had nowhere else to take the faux-documentary after Zelig, along comes 1992's Husbands and Wives, using the genre to get under the skin of relationships. Awkwardly stumbling around apartments to observe intimate arguments, Husbands and Wives exposes two marital breakdowns with a ruthless honesty - the kind of thing you'd expect from Noah Baumbach today. With its handheld cameras and quiet soundtrack, it's like watching the real life story that inspired The Squid and the Whale 13 years later. 

It seems even more honest given the time of its release, designed to take advantage of the director's controversial split from 12-year partner and muse Mia Farrow, over his relationship with their adopted step-daughter. Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) have been married for years, but when their best friends, Jack (an excellent Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), announce they're splitting up, Judy and Gabe begin falling to pieces too.

Things get worse when Gabe, a professor of creative writing, starts to spend time with his 20 year old student, Rain (Juliette Lewis). Lewis, a seductive young poet who flicks her hair and wears low-cut tops, is a typical siren with a flair for drama - one scene sees her instigate a kiss in the middle of a power cut during a lightning storm. Indeed, the whole piece is full of heart-wrenching drama. I'm not sure why the BFI have programmed it in among the other Allen comedies; there are only three big laughs in the whole 110 minutes.

The first sees Judy Davis' wonderfully uptight divorcee struggling to welcome Liam Neeson's amorous advances. He tries to compliment her home. "English pine. It's the best," he smiles. "I prefer French. My decorator screwed me," she snaps back, wringing her hands. The second is unintentional, when Woody refers to a previous relationship with a woman called Harriet Harman. He describes her as "sexually carnivorous" - a statement that not only makes me glad the Labour Party has a new leader, but also hope desperately that the film is completely true.

The third laugh finds Rain reciting her list of past conquests. They're all middle-aged men. "I began to worry I was just a symbol of lost youth unfulfilled desires," she says, flicking her hair in a low-cut top.

By portraying her as such a provocative force, our sympathies end up lying with Gabe, absolving Woody's frustrated husband of his age-jumping romance. He backs away, flustered, eventually resolving to stay single. In contrast, we actively dislike Pollack and his mid-life crisis, which sees him shack up with a health food nut before deciding to get back together with Sally. It's hard not to compare the film's understanding perspective with Allen's private life, but however autobiographical it may be, Husbands and Wives is blunt, truthful stuff.

Is love seizing your chance to be single? Is it tolerating a partner's flaws for the sake of long-term companionship? 

Earnest monologues to the camera unravel the emotional mess at a controlled pace.

Woody makes eye contact at the end. "Can I go now? Is this over?" Part of you thinks the same thing.




The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Anyone who's seen Speed or Dumb and Dumber has probably spent at least one hour of their life wishing that Jeff Daniels would come down off the screen and into real life. That's exactly what happens to unsuspecting, unhappily married Cecilia (Mia Farrow).

Going to see the titular old-school matinee five times to avoid her violent husband, she's amazed when lead hero Tom Baxter (Daniels) recognises her in the audience. He soon enters the auditorium, running away with Cecilia out of the multiplex for a brilliant, fantastical fling. 

As a fictional character, Tom finds life fascinating. Unaware of anything outside of the film's frame, he doesn't know what happened before the opening credits or what to do when the lights go out. One scene sees him bewildered after their dramatic first kiss. He stops, confused. "Where's the fade-out?"  

Things become more post-modern when cinema patrons start to complain about Tom's fellow characters, who can't continue the movie without him. "Don't turn the projector off! It gets black and we disappear!" they cry, terrified of human intervention. So they stay there, sitting in the same monochrome room waiting for the plot to move forward. "We should be at the Copa Cabana," says one frustrated woman. "Forget it," retorts a supporting male. "I'm tired of marrying you every night anyway. We never even get to the bedroom!"

It's a sublime device worthy of Luis Buñuel (you can see where Charlie Kaufman's influence came from), which gets even better when the actor who plays Tom, Gil Shepherd (Daniels), is called in to woo Cecilia away from her (formerly) on-screen lover.

An actor playing an actor playing a character, the young-faced Daniels has never been more charming, while Mia Farrow's naive wife is completely adorable. Together, they make a gorgeous couple, perfectly capturing the enchanting impossibility of their relationship. 

And that's why this movie is so beautiful. Like the imaginary Tom and the depressed Cecilia, everything just fits. 

The Purple Rose of Cairo is probably my favourite Woody Allen film. A witty and heartfelt delight, the 82-minute masterpiece rivals Cinema Paradiso as a love letter to the magic of cinema and is up there with the very best portrayals of the fragility of human emotion. Unsurprisingly, like Husbands and Wives, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Sadly, like Husbands and Wives, it didn't win.

At the heart of it is a very simple, human dilemma. Should Cecilia go with the seemingly perfect, but limited, Tom? Or choose the apparently real romance on offer from Gil? 

Rather than try to answer that rhetorical question, I'm going to do the sensible thing: stop writing about doomed relationships and escape by watching another film. 



For more on the Woody Allen BFI retrospective, visit the official site here.


  • charlie kaufman
  • cinema paradiso
  • husbands and wives
  • jeff daniels
  • judy davis
  • juliette lewis
  • liam neeson
  • luis bunuel
  • mia farrow
  • noah baumbach
  • sydney pollack