In filmmaker Nicola Rose’s directorial debut Goodbye, Petrushka, an unexpected encounter takes place between two people from opposite sides of the world — one a talented yet eccentric young American puppeteer/collegian, Claire (Lizzie Kehoe), the other a past-his-prime French figure skater, Thibault (Thomas Vieljeux) — in a heartwarming, funny and frequently thought-provoking tale that, thanks to both its portrayal of a couple defined not by romance but by their creative work, plus the film’s exploration of the difficulties that ensue when creative and personal ambitions collide in such partnerships, distinguishes itself greatly from typical romantic comedies where interpersonal love and intimacy are prevalent in each storyline.
Frustrated with both her film school studies and the ridicule she gets for her work from her enormously self-centered instructor (Professor Steve, played hilariously by Dhane Ross) and her classmates, Claire prepares to trade the stress and chaos of life in New York City for the legendary romance and charm of Paris. With her best friend, the wealthy and often annoying Julia (Casey Landman) in tow, Claire also learns that the ex-skating star she met in New York has followed her back to his native France, but to her surprise, he’s already in a relationship with his ballerina girlfriend Trina (Cat Grey).
Nevertheless, Claire envisions Thibault as the leading man in her dream project: a combination puppet show/figure skating performance based on the lovesick yet ill-fated Russian puppet character Petrushka. While Claire is convinced that this may be the one production that re-energizes Thibault’s fading love for the sport that brought him fame, he’s not sure if this dramatic return to the ice is worth risking the normalcy and security of his connection to Trina and his unglamorous current job at a local bank.
Meanwhile, Claire finds herself tangled in one misadventure and misunderstanding after another — be it as a frazzled nanny to a family who becomes very suspicious of her care-taking skills while their children drive her crazy, or as an art student struggling to deal with administrative red tape while signing up for classes and being in a less-than-joyous fling with fellow artist Rafal (Bartek Szymanski). For Claire, these moments make not just for an extraordinary time spent in the City of Light, but they also teach her that the most important change she can make comes when she finally decides to become the person she’s always wanted to be.
Goodbye, Petrushka can now be viewed at home for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play, but for those who want to see it in person its next public showing will take place at the Festival of Cinema NYC in Queens, New York on August 6th at 6 PM (Eastern Time). Those in or around the area can obtain tickets for the screening at this link.
First presented in Rose’s 2017 short film debut Creative Block (where she portrayed Claire while Vieljeux played Thibault), the story of Goodbye, Petrushka was already written as a full-length screenplay when Rose met her co-producer on the film, Tierney Boorboor, a few years before its production started.
Though Rose wasn’t sure at first whether or not she’d be able to turn her initial short film into the charming feature that’s now becoming an audience favorite, she and Tierney eventually worked to freshen up her existing script and to get it ready for production while keeping the energetic and lovable qualities that made it work in the first place.
“When it became clear that we would, in fact, make the feature, I went back to the original script and tweaked it. I didn’t exactly do an overhaul, because Tierney (an excellent and intuitive script doctor) pointed out that there was an authentically youthful, almost goofy tone in the original script that shouldn’t be changed. After all, it was the story of a 19-year-old girl figuring out her life.”
Having written it while only in her twenties, Rose worked to make her story’s emphasis on humor and youthful enthusiasm evident throughout the screenplay — and finally, the produced movie. “I wasn’t much older than Claire when I originally wrote it, and that shone through. In another script, in another genre, that could have been a real deficit, but here, it made it feel authentic, and a movie as absurd as this one needs to be grounded in something.”
In recalling the film’s story of a young woman seeking to find her life’s purpose while doing so in an often haphazard way, Rose — who, like Claire in Goodbye, Petrushka, studied and performed puppetry in Paris, met a similar assortment of varied personalities and experienced many of the same unusual yet unforgettable occurrences that audiences will see in the film — found many common traits between herself and the fictional heroine she created for her first feature-length endeavor.
“…I did meet and make friends with an ice skater I admired, who had recently retired from the sport,” Rose says. “I did study puppetry and perform as a puppeteer. I did have a bizarre best friend who explained sex in the weirdest way I had ever heard, and I still don’t know what was going on with that, but it was priceless. I did do battle with French bureaucrats, over and over, and I did have a small, malicious Parisian child spit in my face. And there you have my résumé.”
Part of that resume included doing hundreds of live performances of the puppets she designed; shows that often took place in hectic environments where Rose met parents who were sometimes just as difficult to please as their kids. Yet when the endless pace of shows finally took its toll on her, she discovered that it was time for her to make a big change of her own. This part of Rose’s story, too, is dramatized through Claire in Goodbye, Petrushka.
“Somehow (I am still not quite sure how) I made my living as a professional puppeteer for six years. I still love and appreciate the art, but I became burned out as a performer,” adds Rose. “When I was just out of college, I could do 3, even 4, shows a day. When I quit in 2019, doing just 1 made me need a nap. Now, just thinking about it makes me need a nap. Anyway, Claire experiences both that love of the art and some of that disillusionment in the film, but I think she’s quite resilient.”
Commonalities between Claire and her creator aside, the character Rose says she feels truly connected to in Goodbye, Petrushka may surprise you. Yet for Rose, that connection — like much of the film itself — comes from a very familiar place.
“Even if Claire is a little bit based on me, at least in a very general sense, it’s probably Thibaut I identify the most with because he has to part ways with something he loves early on in life, and he doesn’t know what to do afterwards. That was an experience I had, although with acting, rather than a sport. I think the ways people react to that sort of shake-up tend to be kind of universal, regardless of specifics. It’s total blankness, spinning your wheels, going ‘wait, what do I do now?’ I’ve only ever done one thing.”
One of the main reasons why Goodbye, Petrushka is appealing to audiences is that it’s a movie that eschews typical rom-com tropes by framing its characters not exclusively as potential life-long partners but as people attempting to find their satisfaction in ways that go beyond love. As Rose explains, that quality has helped Petrushka — which she calls “a comedy of errors and discomfort” — to pleasantly defy moviegoers’ traditional expectations of what romantic comedies should be.
“Somebody recently described the movie as ‘deeply silly’ and I think that’s the best pair of words you could possibly apply to it. Yes, it’s about love, of a kind, or at least the potential for it, but that’s not what’s at the center of it. At the center (of the film) is a girl figuring out what kind of life she needs to lead, and in order to figure that out, she needed to meet this guy, and he needed to meet her. Without spoiling, I will say I can’t tell you how many people have said they were relieved by the ending.”
As for the other reason why Goodbye, Petrushka has been so successful? “I think the characters resonate with people because both are young and so driven by their passions. I’ve had a lot of people tell me the movie reminded them of their formative years, even if they were nothing like Claire or Thibaut,” Rose adds. “That tells me that there’s something relatable there — you don’t have to be a fledgling puppeteer or a recently retired figure skater to identify with the movie. Thank goodness, because that’s not much of a demographic, but feelings of loss and puppy love and (heartbreak) and excitement are universal and eternal, I’d say.”
Though Claire and Thibault’s story is front and center in Goodbye, Petrushka, the stories of everyone who surrounds them are equally prominent and interesting enough. “I always say I think the two lead characters are in one movie, one that is very sincere and earnest and fairly serious, whereas everyone around them is in another movie, one that embodies the absurdity and over-the-topness of life,” says Rose. “The two worlds collide all the time, but none of the characters realize what’s going on. I mean, who among us ever really knows what’s going on? Anyway, that’s my personal fan theory.
Filmed entirely in New York during the early post-lockdown stages of the still-ongoing COVID pandemic, the then-impossibility of international travel gave Rose and her crew the ability to seamlessly double The Big Apple as Paris during many scenes while intercutting them with previously-shot stock footage of the latter city’s majestic outdoor settings. Though the difficulties of filmmaking during COVID made Goodbye, Petrushka’s production a real trial-by-fire for Rose and her collaborators, the lessons she learned about the entire process were invaluable.
“It was a pressure cooker in terms of production, that’s for sure,” remembers Rose. “We were shooting during COVID and we had a very limited number of days. I came out feeling like: well, heck, if I can do that, I can do anything! That’s probably not true, but confidence never hurts. Anyway, I think whatever I do next, anything with more time and more budget, will be easier. I definitely got hundreds of times stronger as a director. I got stronger as an editor. I want to learn more, learn by doing.”
In addition to handling the directing and writing duties for the film, Rose hand-crafted its Petrushka puppets, which were inspired by artist Alexandre Benois’ original designs for composer Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 Petrushka ballet. Meanwhile, the colorful and dreamy animated sequences used to illustrate Claire’s visions for her hoped-for show were drawn by film co-producer Tommy Cha. As the other primary basis for Goodbye, Petrushka, the similarities — and differences — between Stravinsky’s famed stage tragedy and the modern story Rose tells in her film are clear.
“Petrushka is unlucky in love, as Thibaut and Claire both are in their own messy ways, and he finds himself in the midst of a love triangle, as both of them do,” notes Rose. “He (Thibault) falls for a ballerina (like Trina in the movie), only Petrushka’s ballerina loves another guy. Petrushka is all impulses and longings, like Claire, and he ultimately dies of love, which is probably what Claire feels like she’s going to do, although in reality, she’s going to be fine. Poor Petrushka meets a sadder end.”
Like the film’s characters — and she hopes, audiences who see Goodbye, Petrushka — Rose has also learned the importance of letting go of the things or people that hold her back from growing, while knowing how pivotal it is for such growth to come from chasing her own dreams, and from embracing everything that makes her special. That message is summed up best by Angelica Garson, the young actor who portrays Angelique, one of the mischievous kids Claire tries (and fails) to babysit while flailing as a nanny to an upscale French family.
Recalls Rose: “At a recent Q&A after the movie’s premiere in New York, an audience member asked what we all felt the film’s message was. Each person gave their opinion and Angelica said the message is,“it’s okay to be apart.” That really took me back because it is right on the nose. I wish I’d thought of it myself. The message I thought of myself is not as good, but here it is: it’s okay to be different. Don’t fight it. You don’t necessarily need to celebrate it, either. Just go on and do your thing, and with any luck, it will all work out.”
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