If he hadn't been making 2001: A Space Odyssey at the time, you might just wonder whether Petulia had come from the hand and head of Stanley Kubrick. Possibly in collaboration with Kurt Vonnegut. You can't miss Petulia's chilly dissection of relationships in the dehumanized second half of the 20th century. Or its acidly comedic observations on the ubiquity of mechanization, violence and the sterility of our environments. Or its dreamlike probing of the inability of human beings even husbands, wives and lovers to connect through physical, social or emotional walls. Or the technical virtuosity of its striking cinematography and editing. Hell, Petulia does a better job of being Eyes Wide Shut than Eyes Wide Shut did.
Instead, this stabbingly fractured, serio-comic romantic tragedy about two would-be lovers (Julie Christie and George C. Scott) is a Richard Lester film. It's his best besides A Hard Day's Night, although the two could not be more different in content, tone, style and pop purpose. It's arguably his most artful film. That may be because Petulia looks like an even collaboration between Lester and his cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg.
A jaded satire of our shifting social values set against the psychedelic Summer of Love scene in San Francisco, with Vietnam War newscasts providing televised wallpaper, Petulia crystallized Lester's growing misanthropic view of a society cracked by its neuroses and alienation. At the same time, Petulia's recognizably Roegian imagery, shattered-time narrative, and themes of despair and casual brutality anticipate Roeg's later celebrated work such as Don't Look Now (with Christie) and Bad Timing.
Petulia is a cutting and anti-sentimental portrait of its era, an anti-The Graduate that provokes by not buying into the American myths we hold about ourselves or playing to trite sentiments of the time. It's an essential film from and about America in the dying days of the '60s, yet the modernism of its style and ambitions makes Petulia impressively ahead of that time.
If you lay out Petulia's non-linear plot in a straight line, you get a conventional melodrama about just-divorced middle-aged doctor Archie Bollen (Scott in one of his great performances) embarking on an affair with the beautiful young "kook" Petulia (Christie), and the consequences when her wealthy and hair-trigger abusive prettyboy husband (Richard Chamberlain in a rare bad-guy role) finds out about it.
Simple enough. But the film takes that story and smashes it with a hammer.
This DVD's vintage "making of" featurette, shot during production as a promo short, tells us that "Petulia starts in the middle and moves towards its beginning and its end at the same time." It does so through flashbacks and flash-forwards, some as quick and sharp as slivers of glass. It's up to us to puzzle the collage together as it's revealed. Very French New Wave, très Godardian for a big-money American studio film.
At its start we meet Archie and Petulia encountering each other, presumably for the first time, at a charity dance, "Shake for Highway Safety." The dance band for all those pearled matrons and tuxedoed swells is Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, backed by psychedelic projected oil light shows. (The Grateful Dead also appear in the film, both musically and as cameo hippies.) The contrast is startling and wryly funny. It's the first of many contrasts Lester sets up to illustrate, as Dave Kehr put it, "a world fatally fragmented into rich and poor, past and present, compassion and indifference."
Lester's funny-sad, Vonnegut-like touches depict an America so at odds with itself that two people can't drive to a hotel for an affair without encountering roboticized, automatic "service" at every step. Petulia surprises Archie by installing a portable greenhouse in his San Francisco apartment, "a little bit of life in all this steel and glass." We're the only ones who notice that the greenhouse is itself a stronghold of steel and glass. At one point Archie confesses to a friend, "What do I want? To feel something."
Meanwhile, Petulia wants to be Holly Golightly in all her flip rebelliousness, but she's too bruised by her own melancholy and twisted hell of a marriage to make going lightly anything more than an affectation. Lester makes it clear that even when the opportunity presents itself, feeling something is too hard or uncertain a path for most of us to take. Freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose, but, as Lester shows via Archie's trip to a heavily allegorized Alcatraz, for some lost souls freedom means the single choice of remaining in the prison we've made for ourselves. Although set in the Haight-Ashbury scene, its point of view doesn't cut the hippies any more slack than anyone else. Here they're as self-absorbed as the materialist society they have nominally dropped out of.
(Shirley Knight, Arthur Hill and Joseph Cotten are also all strong here. Look for Rene Auberjonois and, uncredited, Howard Hesseman and Austin Pendleton.)
None of which is to say that Petulia is only a pessimistic drag. It's alluring and seductive, from the smart screenplay (by Barbara Turner and Lawrence B. Marcus, from a novel by John Haase) to Nic Roeg's visuals to John Barry's doleful sax-heavy score, to the on-target performances from its leads, especially the subdued dynamics between magnetic Christie and tightly bound Scott.
It defies simplistic categorization, and is such a rich and stratified experience, with so much of its substance tucked between the lines, that it deserves and benefits from repeat viewings. Its characters and their motives are open to interpretation and re-interpretation.
So there's no question Petulia is a conversation-starter.
You get a sense of that by reading the reviews from the period. To Time magazine's Richard Schickel, this "terrific movie" is "at once a sad and savage comment on the ways we waste our time, our money and ourselves in upper-middle-class America. It is a subject much trifled with in movies these days, but rarely if ever has it been tackled with the ferocious and ultimately purifying energy displayed in this highly moral, yet unmoralistic film." On the other hand, Pauline Kael, in her famous lengthy essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, utterly loathed it. "I have rarely seen a more disagreeable, a more dislikable (or a bloodier) movie than Petulia," she says before going into considerable length explaining why. This movie about our dearth of passion sure does inspire it in others.
These days Steven Soderbergh often mentions Petulia as a seminal influence on his work. In 1978 a Take One magazine poll of 20 film critics including Vincent Canby, Richard Corliss, Stanley Kauffman, Janet Maslin, Frank Rich, Andrew Sarris, Richard Schickel, David Thomson and François Truffaut ranked Petulia among the best American films of the previous decade, taking third place after The Godfather (I and II) and Nashville, and ahead of Annie Hall, Mean Streets and 2001.
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Warner Home Video brings Petulia home with an exemplary print and transfer (1.75:1, anamorphic). The DD 1.0 audio suits the bill nicely.
The two "making of" extras don't tell us more than surface-level insights, but they're worth a look. The new one is "The Uncommon Making of Petulia" (14 min.), a thin production retrospective with producer Raymond Wagner and Richard Chamberlain. That's where we discover that George C. Scott couldn't get a handle on what the film was about, but he trusted Lester with it.
Next is the vintage piece shot on-set, "Petulia: The Uncommon Movie" (12 min.) that tries too hard to sell the film to the hip set "If you're like most and get 'with it' pretty quickly, you will have a lot to talk about afterwards" but it's worthwhile for the behind-the-scenes footage and input from Lester and Scott.
Also here is the pompous, overreaching original theatrical trailer that again makes it clear Warner Bros. didn't know what to do with such an "uncommon movie." Keep-case.