The humble rom-com isn’t dead; the romantic and comic spirits seem in good health in Goodbye Petrushka, a heartfelt, gentle and winning film from writer/director Nicola Rose. If you’re a fan of the coming of age cycles featured in Gilmore Girls, or enjoy the feel of a Belle and Sebastian song, then you’re squarely in the target audience for a film that meshes ice-skating, Paris, puppetry and unrequited love in generally adorable yet spiky fashion.
Lizzy Kehoe plays Claire, a young American with a penchant for puppets; she dreams of escaping her film-writing class in NYC and experiencing the highs and lows of taking a real creative gamble. That gamble takes the form of creating her own idiosyncratic version of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, but with puppets, and on ice; it goes without saying that her self-obsessed teacher is no help to her on realising her rather unique vision. Far more helpfully, Claire’s bonkers gal-pal Julia (a game Casey Landman) persuades her to follow her dreams to France, where Claire enlists as an au pair with an agency as a means to hooking up with Thibaut (Thomas Vieljeux) who previously encountered Claire in a meet cute in NYC. Thibaut is, or rather was a professional ice-skater, but has been convinced to retire and work in a bank. Can Claire redeem Thibaut’s creative aspirations, and realise her own ambitions in the process?
There’s no reason for a low-budget film to look bad in the digital age, but Goodbye Petrushka looks as spruce as anything you’d find on the Disney+ channel. That’s important, because this kind of personal, off-beat work has frequently got lost in the distribution shuffle due to mild production values, but not here, with gleaming photography, dreamy animated insets, and a natural feel for the edges of the bohemian scene of Paris. Kehoe makes an empathetic heroine of Claire, while Vieljeux manages to be just hunky enough to feel like an impossible object of desire, as well as hinting at inner turmoil of his own. But the whole package sings here; those who enjoyed the low-stakes confections of say Whit Stillman will enjoy some of the American-abroad shenanigans here.
Goodbye Petrushka is a funny, engaging film that doesn’t so much observe the clichés of the genre rather than replace them. Rose seeks to revitalise the idea of the bildungsroman by generating laughs from the conflict of fantasy and reality; it’s a consistent plot point that Claire is constantly warned about the high standards of the families she babysits for, and yet most of the Parisians she meets are unfriendly and unhelpful to her cause. That edge, mixed with a hard-won sweetness and lack of sentiment, make Goodbye Petrushka something of a must-see for anyone with a feel for romantic cinema. The last scenes don’t offer the expected tropes, but an honest admission that while not everything in life ends up as you want, that personal struggle may well offer a positive clue as to what things could be. Whether that’s your experience of life or not, Goodbye Petrushka is a lovely film that deserves to be commended to the young at heart.