The Puppet Her and the Ice Him
The endgame of most romantic comedies is to get the couple to “and they lived happily ever after.” Right? After all the meet-cutes, bouncy banter, misunderstandings that could have been easily resolved with a conversation, and tearful reconciliations, it all ends with a kiss and the assumption that the happy couple will walk into the sunset together.
Okay, cool. But then what? Do they deal with the seven year itch? Have kids, then vaguely regret having kids? Slowly grow apart? Get into an expensive and time-consuming divorce? Make it all the way into their twilight years and then one of them dies? Just like each relationship is its own highly individual and deeply weird* organism, so, too, does each relationship have its own life cycle. Some pass away before the first date is over. Others last beyond a lifetime. Still others are meant to be temporary but set the trajectory of a person’s life.
So do I expect a major studio to make a romantic comedy that’s a) romantic, b) actually funny, and c) willing to zig where so many other rom-coms have zagged? I do not. Major studios are a superstitious and cowardly lot. Only independent cinema has the courage to break expected tropes and deliver something interesting. That’s why I responded so strongly to Goodbye, Petrushka, a rom-com made with serious intelligence and a sneaky sense of humor.
Claire (Lizzie Kehoe) loves two things with her whole heart. Those would be puppets and France. She has a skill for puppetry, the construction, the execution, the storytelling that can only be possible with the usage of marionettes. Unfortunately, she’s in a college film class taught by the odious Professor Steve (Dhane Ross). He commits two unpardonable sins. He speaks in the third person** and he cruelly puts down Claire’s dream of puppet-forward cinema.
Claire is heartbroken. Her bestie Julia (Casey Landman) is one of those people who delivers wise counsel and breathtaking insanity to friends in equal measure. She encourages Claire that now is the time to drop out, head for Paris, and follow her dreams. It’s a good idea, even coming from Julia. So Claire dusts off her passport and makes for the City of Light.
Is Paris all sunshine, magic, and buttery croissants for our Claire? Not so much! She gets a job as an au pair and encounters a specific kind of Gallic shittiness that could only flourish in la Republique. She also encounters intense and baffling bureaucratic resistance at a local puppetry conservatory.*** In a lot of ways, Claire’s experience in Paris is absolute merde.
And then? She meets Thibault (Thomas Vieljeux). He’s a figure skater, a very good one, and he’s unfortunately aging out of the sport. Claire has a (potentially) brilliant idea. She and Thibault will collaborate on an adaptation of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” one that features both skating and puppetry. Along with the collaboration, there could be something else developing between them.
I’ve said this before, but debut features can be a little dicey for me. It’s genuinely miraculous when someone completes the herculean task of making a movie, but making a good movie? You know, one with a voice and with something to say? That’s not something you come across too often. That’s why I’m so thankful that Nicola Rose has made a good movie. It’s a little shaggy, to be sure. Some of the timing within the comedy is a little iffy, and there are a few scenes that could have been tightened up to goose the pacing.
Really, though, I don’t think that matters. Rose has made a charming and fun film that balances real heart with a clear vision of her characters. Despite a presumably modest budget, Rose’s film never looks cheap or slapped together. Part of that is her smart decision to use footage from New York and Paris to do some of the heavy lifting. Speaking of the budget, Rose was confronted with a dilemma. How was she supposed to show multiple ice skating setpieces that moved the narrative forward? Easy – she’s made a number of animated segments. They get around the budget issue elegantly, and they give us a glimpse into how Claire sees the world artistically. Perhaps best of all is that Rose has cultivated a voice as a filmmaker. I don’t know her, but I have a feeling that this is a movie only she could have made.
As the screenwriter, Rose has taken a very sneaky and clever approach. She’s written a rom-com that has familiar tropes, such as the meet cute, the wacky best friend, and all that. Then, she uses those tropes to tell a story that’s more about a young woman figuring out who she is, and more about how there are all kinds of romantic relationships. Rose does excellent work showing us who these people are, what they think they want, and how they change and grow. Her characters behave organically and never feel like they’re from a Screenwriting 101 book. The icing on the cake is a zany sense of humor, and for every joke that bombs, a better one hits the target.
Rose’s cast may not have much in the way of acting experience, but they make up for it with enthusiasm and no small degree of charm. I liked Lizzie Kehoe quite a lot as Claire. An inferior actor would have dialed up the wackiness to an annoying degree. Kehoe knows better, and delivers a performance that feels like a real person. We’ve all known someone like Claire, someone with stars in her eyes and a good brain in her head. She partners effectively with Thomas Vieljeux as Thibaut. He’s not quite as organic as Kehoe, but in a running subplot, he sells his character’s insecurity nicely. Thibaut is told, over and over, that he’s too old to be a figure skater, too washed up. Those are terrifying words, and nobody in his life gets that, not until Claire comes along.
In their way, most romantic comedies are as formulaic as most action movies. In the world of cinema, that’s the way of things. Goodbye, Petrushka breathes new life into a frequently tired genre. It does so due to a talented new voice. Let’s hope for our sakes that Nicola Rose sticks around for a while.
*There’s something about each couple that’s incomprehensible at best and borderline offensive at worst to the outside world. As a fun activity, get together with your significant other and figure out how you’re off-putting together!
**When I become dictator, speaking in the third person will become a felony. I know, it’s “unconstitutional” and “against the First Amendment,” but we all know the Founders would be fine with a restriction like that.
***Americans will scoff at the idea of a puppetry conservatory. Those same Americans will watch endless reality TV while surrounded by seventeen guns – the average number of firearms owned by citizens in the good old U.S. of A.