The beautiful Julie Christie - there has never been another screen actress, before or after who has her radiant appeal. She made Petulia - a strange, hyperbolic and surreal sort of film - in 1968 at the height of her stardom. She'd just won the Best Actress Oscar for Darling a few years previously and was now considered one of the icons of the swinging sixties, which made the decision to have her star in this film all the more appropriate.
Now out on DVD, Petulia is just as bizarre, frustrating - and even as irritating - as it was thirty years ago, but the film is worth revisiting, mainly for performances by Christie, Scott and Chamberlain and also for the colourful images of San Francisco during the late 1960s. Directed by Richard Lester, with Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer - who gives the film an artier look than it really deserves - Petulia skewers time like a knife.
The film utilizes fast forward and backward cuts, which at the time seemed avant-garde and unconventional, but today it comes across as sort of exasperating. It begins when Petulia, a rich, married, kooky waif, played by Julie Christie, propositions Archie, a tired divorced surgeon, played by George C. Scott, at a San Francisco charity ball. She tells him that she has a husband, but that she desperately wants to have an affair with a married man.
Obviously a little odd, Petulia manages to capture Archie's heart and arrives with a tuba and bruises at Scott's apartment quite early one morning. He's a little hesitant to get involved with her as he still has feelings for his wife Polo (Shirley Knight). Archie's friends, Barney and Wilma (Arthur Hill and Kathleen Widdoes), understanding nothing, show him films of himself and his former wife, in hopes of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, Petulia's marriage to her husband David (Richard Chamberlain) is on the skids and when he finds out about her affair with Archie he brutally abuses her. Her father-in-law (Joseph Cotten) visits her bedside while Polo parades her new lover in front of Archie. He in turn tries to have a relationship with his sons and everything plays out in such a fractured, arty and shattered way that it's as though someone had intentionally devastated a perfectly fashioned and crafted film.
Although these were turbulent times in America, the film only hints at the social change that was starting to take place. Both Petulia and Archie are quite straight, upper-middle class people; no way do they affiliate themselves with the hippy, counter-culture people, the sexual freedom advocates, and rock music fans, and druggies. But change is also affecting them and although they are as different as night and day, they somehow need each other.
Petulia is certainly endemic of the 60's; she's beautiful and playful, oscillating between affection and distance, and exasperatingly glamorous. The film almost plays out in a series of vignettes, without a definitive plot: Archie takes his kids out for a weekend; Petulia unwittingly takes home a Mexican orphan. We constantly see these incidents in brief glimpses, as though Lester is determined to skewer reality, and make us take note of how these two characters are conflicted and vulnerable.
Petulia works pretty well as an exercise in how two neurotic people can be trapped by their own fate or by indecision. Don't expect a happy and fulfilled ending as by the film's conclusion, the characters face the same problems - Petulia is still trapped in a marriage to the jealous David and he unsure of his wife's commitment. Archie is still conflicted and cannot settle, and Petulia is unable to know if she can love anybody other than the poor and vulnerable Archie. Mike Leonard August 06.