I went to high school in the 2000s which is a precarious time for films. Movies targeted at teens either featured skinny beautiful girls in low-rise jeans having adversarial relationships with each other to win over a man or gain popularity OR the movies made were indie flicks that featured a sullen guy trying to find himself who meets his quirky love interest, the manic pixie dream girl. In the early 2000s, she seemingly fluttered into our lives out of nowhere, as she often does in these films, with her colorful, choppy haircut and mix-matched clothes. She came to us seducing the leading man by playing The Shins or Lata Mangeshkar. She came to us talking incessantly about nothing of importance, but in an endearing way. She came to us with barely any backstory or goals of her own that weren’t to be explicitly charming and weird. She came to us and to the moody lead actor as a light in the darkness. She came to save us all.
The phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was coined by Nathan Rabin when writing about Elizabethtown starring Kirsten Dunst (whom I love! Watch her in Fargo) to describe this character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” It’s been talked about to death — to the point that you’re likely wondering why I’m writing about this at all, but let me continue — and he has since regretted coining the phrase and the sexist phenomena it started in which it became excusable to give these barely-dimensional characters life. However, his original essay holds merit for my generation of movie-goers and feminists. So many of these free-spirited characters lack a life of their own outside of the man they are saving and those were the movies that people my age ingested during our formative years. Not being a young woman between the years 2000–2010, Rabin doesn’t understand the ways that fiction can prescribe fact.
I entered college in the fall of 2007, so this was also the adopted identity of myself and so many of my peers who had to later learn that it was not our responsibility to save a man by wearing funny hats and suggesting he throw his watch into the lake. Just as Chuck Palahniuk wrote that movies like Say Anything defined romance for women of his generation, these films defined it for mine giving sensitive (read: non-blond) girls and boys the idea that a quirky girl who wears vintage dresses and prefers Small Faces over The Beatles is going to save them from depression. I came of age in this era. I know that this trope became aspirational in real life. Obviously, real life women are real people with problems, flaws, and feelings of our own. Cute cardigans and ukeleles do not a whole person make.
This is all to say, I’ve been surprised that we’ve rarely seen the dark side of this trope — something anyone like me knows exists in real life. Maybe that’s because the same sensitive writer-director types are the ones making a majority of the films we watch. The closest thing I can think of is seeing Charlize Theron play this trope in Arrested Development, no doubt making fun of herself in Sweet November, in which we find (spoiler alert) that she wasn’t a majestic quirky girl, but a woman with an extremely low I.Q. who wasn’t trying to be charming at all when she suggested someone just walk across the ocean. She meant it!
However, I finally did see a movie that showed the dark side of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that I’ve been longing to see and I am shocked that this movie was made in 1968.
Petulia was directed by Richard Lester and is an incredibly gorgeous film with rich colors, cool music, and a distorted timeline that has gone largely ignored. While critics tend to agree it is a little-known masterpiece (Ebert said the film made him “desperately unhappy” but that he was “unable to find anything wrong with it” — could you ask for a better review?!), it’s taken a lot of time for it to earn recognition. The film was supposed to debut at the Cannes Festival in 1968, but the festival wound up being canceled that year. Without much fanfare, the movie came and went despite an all-star cast. Watching it for the first time in 2017, I was shocked that it’s not celebrated on the same scale as other quintessentially 1960s movies like The Graduate — is that because there’s not a weird seduction scene or a Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack? Regardless, under a modern lens it’s clear that Petulia was wildly ahead of its time while also feeling very much like a product of the 60s like some kind of cinematic magic trick that transcends time and technicolor.
Petulia Danner is our titular character, made lovable by the always charming Julie Christie and, no, not a single person ever questions where the name “Petulia” comes from. They all just keep saying it like it’s a real name. She’s a British woman in America, so maybe they think it’s a British thing. Anyway, carrying on, Petulia acts rAnDoM and carefree and since this film is set in San Francisco — in Haight-Ashbury — in 1968, her actions seem excusable as hippie nonsense when compared to her older love interest who uses hippiedom to experiment with freedom (much like the 60s comedy I Love You Alice B. Toklas). That’s another brilliantly ahead-of-its-time device this movie uses. The film appears aware, while in its heyday, that Haight-Ashbury will come to stand for something. It will stand for freedom, exploration, and the overall silliness of the hippie movement and it uses all of that including opening the movie with a live performance from Janis Fucking Joplin.
YEAH! PLUS there is a live performance by The Grateful Dead later in the film that winds up feeling like an acid-infused music video. How much more Summer of Love representation does one need?
The leading man is a newly divorced doctor named Archie played by George C. Scott who wears many magnificent turtlenecks. He isn’t instantly wowed by Petulia whom he meets at a benefit in the very first scene when she flirts with him and tells him that she’s going to marry him. He calls out her actions as bizarre, using the word “kook” to describe her when she shows up at his doorstep one night with a stolen tuba (that’s how my grandparents met). That’s kooky alright. The word kook is a nod to the title of the book that this movie was based on, Me and the Arch Kook Petulia by John Haase. I love that book title and, no, I will never read it.
She’s kooky, but comes across as straight-up unhinged rather than adorable. You worry at first whether or not Petulia is sane. Unlike some of the 2000s movies that had female characters with similar traits, Archie is unhappy with her antics. He threatens to call the police, he calls her crazy and he winds up dismissing her until he learns what we learn: Petulia is doing all of this as a cry for help. We see glimmers of Petulia’s homelife in brief snapshots that come like psychedelic waves (as everything else does in the movie). We see that she’s being abused at home by her violent husband and that she did something she feels very guilty about (I won’t spoil it!). When Archie learns this, too, everything comes into focus. She’s not acting like a little weirdo to attract or save the newly-divorced Archie. She’s trying to escape from her own hellish home life.
This is the dark side of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I wish we saw more of. There’s sadness underneath the seemingly carefree nature. Archie only really starts to fall for Petulia when he realizes that, too. He falls for her when she stops being a concept and starts being human. The thing I like best about the movie — or film if you prefer to isolate people — is that Petulia does not save the leading man and he does not save her. Their lives simply intersect for a period of happiness and understanding for both of them before carrying on along their own paths.
(Frances Ha feels close to what I’m getting at, but it’s not in the same decade that I’m referring to. A total reverse of all of this is the 2008 movie Happy-Go-Lucky where Sally Hawkins plays a leading lady whose eternal optimism is a detriment to everyone around her. Both Petulia and Happy-Go-Lucky are made by British directors, so maybe there’s something there. Brits, get at me.)
In a lot of ways Petulia feels like the 1960s version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (one of my favorite films that I have ritualistically watched after every single heartbreak as if it’s a spell that allows me to let go). Clementine is the rare manic pixie dream girl character of the first decade of the 2000s who fought against the trope. She insisted to Joel in the movie not once, but twice that people try to box her in. “I’m not a concept,” she tells her love interest Joel (a rare understated performance from Jim Carrey) in her famous monologue. “Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”
That is the very definition of the trope, but here Clementine is eschewing the responsibilities men fling onto her. She’s aware of how she comes across and how men try to fit her in boxes to save their lives, often ignoring the fact that she’s a real person with her own thoughts and feelings. She’s warning him and reminding him, and any men watching, that women like her are not the supporting character in his story. She’s her own protagonist.
Clementine’s edginess reminds me of Petulia. While Petulia doesn’t say this outright, she is acting in a certain way in the hopes that it will attract Archie and that he might save her. But, Petulia is still a real person with responsibilities and obligations and a very scary (but hot) husband (come through, Richard Chamberlain, damn). Even when Archie offers her a way out, she declines because it’s too frightening to make the leap. That feels so real.
Not only is Petulia adept at capturing the spirit of the 60s and at being satirical of its time period despite being in it, but it shows us the realistic prototype for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While the MPDGs (wow, I only just learned how to abbreviate) of the 2000s seemed to lack depth (sorry, Sam in Garden State), there were other films that attempted to make the weird-sexy-leading-lady-who-will-excite-the-man character real. Something Wild had a similar lead character running from an abusive husband. As did Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We didn’t see it really crush either of those characters the way it does Petulia. The closest thing to “darkness” behind the quirky behavior are the movies where the leading lady turned out to be fighting a terminal illness, like Sweet November and Autumn in New York. Winona and Charlize weren’t just carefree bohemians who wore knit hats and drank tea. They were also dying!!! That’s why they acted that way! Duh! They knew life was fragile and precious and they were here to share that lesson with the hard-working and unhappy Keanus and Richard Geres of the world. Aw, a lesson! But again, Petulia also has something that she did wrong (I won’t spoil it, stop asking) on top of the fact that she’s covering up abuse. These other characters had things happen to them. Petulia has both. How realistic! How modern! How — dare I say — chic!
Petulia comes with a warning. You can’t blow up your life or escape your problems by putting on a character like this. No matter how flighty and rAnDoM you present yourself to be, you still have to deal with your own problems before attempting to save someone else from theirs.