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Richard Lester's Petulia (1968) is a fragmented film about a fragmented society, a disorienting film about disorientation. Stylistically and thematically, it's Lester's deepest plunge, a challenge still. Coming off his larky Beatles movies, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), it represents a wary homecoming for Lester, the Philadelphia native turned London-based expatriate. Starring Julie Christie as an ambivalent socialite and George C. Scott as a surgeon longing to escape the numbing confinement of a suffocating domestic life, Petulia brings a gimlet eye to a cusp moment in San Francisco and America, just before love beads and flower child energies soured into anger, drugs and Vietnam-bred angst.
It's very much a '60s film, but not one populated by the usual '60s types. Its characters remain rooted in the straight world, drawn to the breakaway energies around them, but essentially people to whom the '60s happen, not people making them happen, ambivalent about severing their ties to their world of white privilege. Lester's first right move was scrapping the film's original title, The Arch Kook Petulia, based on its source, John Haase's novel. Kook is an almost comically inadequate word to describe Christie's character, implying as it does the kicky kind of apple-cart upsetter of screwball comedy. Christie's Petulia has her impulsive side, but she's essentially a sad woman, married to the weak, violent son of a rich family.
Petulia comes on to Scott's surgeon, Archie Bollen, at a charity gala in which Lester fires his first in a string of satiric missiles aimed unerringly at American excesses. Before we meet Petulia or Archie, we're assailed by the bizarre site of the gala's socialite sponsors, rolling through the hotel's service entrance on the way to the grand ballroom in wheelchairs, bandages and casts, costumed as the afflicted beneficiaries of their smugly obtuse charity. Hardly has Petulia approached Archie and offered herself to him than they find themselves checking into an automated hotel, where a credit card produces a keycard to an antiseptic room in a setting emblematic of sex without human context.
Not that there's even sex. Not that night. It comes later, as Petulia seems to run hot and cold, one moment retreating, the next showing up at the doc's apartment with a tuba, ready to let the good times roll. After they do, and the doc leaves her there to go to work the next morning, her husband shows up and beats her severely. This doesn't stop Petulia from sending the doc a gift, a grotesque mini-greenhouse that attaches to his balcony, but must be shielded from sunlight. In such ironies does the film abound. The satire of the absurdity of the milieu is conveyed in marvelously chosen artifacts -- including the ornately ostentatious California beachfront mansion the doctor goes to in order to confront the husband, only to find the latter's father, played in a superbly malevolent fascist vein by Joseph Cotten, pull rank as a senior pillar of the medical establishment, a man of jaw-droppingly arrogant entitlement.
Archie is astonished to find Petulia returning to her husband and the devouring embrace of his parents and their money, especially since his own trajectory had been precisely the opposite. Finding the bourgeois trappings of safety and security a turnoff, he has walked out on his own wife -- by all external measures perfect -- and two young sons because he felt embalmed in his marriage. What he wants, he declares, is to feel, and Petulia has awakened him to something like life. During one of his weekends with his sons, he takes them to Alcatraz and tells them there's no prison you can't break out of, only to be told that their mom's new suitor took them there the week before. She doesn't give remarriage the green light, though, until she's sure he isn't going to return through the door she has left open.
It's one of the beautifully handled subtleties in the brilliantly sophisticated, sentient screenplay by Larry Marcus and Barbara Turner, abetted by an impressively nuanced performance from Shirley Knight as Archie's ex. Richard Chamberlain, cast against type, impressively sheds his pretty boy image, too. He's really scary as Petulia's unstable husband. The film is buttressed as well by strong performances in small roles from Rene Auberjonois, Richard Dysart, Austin Pendleton, Pippa Scott and Kathleen Widdoes. Most bring to their work considerable stage experience, including residencies with the San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theatre. A final '60s imprimatur is supplied by appearances from Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead.
Lester found a new facet of '60s icon Christie to mine ambivalence. He was on to something few of her directors really used, she famously and repeatedly having stated her feelings of detachment from what went with stardom. Scott was to say he never really understood Archie, but trusted Lester. Good instinct, as it turned out, because self-uprooted Archie is all about confusion, which Lester obviously sensed and went with Scott's transmission of it. Ironically, the reason Petulia was attracted to Archie, we later learn, is the one thing he was secure and focused about -- his professionalism. Unbeknownst to Archie, Petulia fixated on his skilled hands and what she took to be his caring manner when he operated on a Mexican boy for whose injury Petulia felt responsible.
America does not like ambivalence in the leading characters of its movies, and the vacillations of both Petulia and Archie, to say nothing of the way they remain ever out of phase, subverted audience expectations. The problem Archie faces with Petulia is that they're never on the same page at the same time. This did not help it at the box-office. Nor did the film's kaleidoscopic style, with its flashbacks and flash-forwards supplying bits of the story, tantalizingly letting us know why things transpired as they did. The camerawork by Nicolas Roeg and editing by Antony Gibbs are as vital a part of the film as its actors. After the film's cool reception, Lester underwent an artistic retreat, moving closer to convention, with less interesting results. But Petulia was a brave film for him to have made, and braver still for its matching of a jagged style to a jagged story. True to its essential melancholy, it never succumbed to popular and clichd takes on the '60s. The result is that it's one of the few films about the '60s still worth seeing.
Producer: Raymond Wagner
Director: Richard Lester
Screenplay: Lawrence B. Marcus; Barbara Turner (adaptation); John Haase (novel "Me and the Arch Kook Petulia")
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Art Direction: Tony Walton
Music: John Barry
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs
Cast: Julie Christie (Petulia), George C. Scott (Archie), Richard Chamberlain (David), Arthur Hill (Barney), Shirley Knight (Polo), Pippa Scott (May), Kathleen Widdoes (Wilma), Roger Bowen (Warren), Richard Dysart (Motel Receptionist), Ruth Kobart (Nun), Ellen Geer (Nun), Lou Gilbert (Mr. Howard)
by Jay Carr
The Films of Richard Lester, by Neil Sinyard, Barnes & Noble, 1985
Julie Christie, by Michael Feeney Callan, St. Martin's Press, 1985
Shattered Love: a Memoir, by Richard Chamberlain, Harper, 2003