Despite my impatience with artists who boast of a direct line to the zeitgeist, I find myself half-believing Raymond Wagner. In a making-of featurette for the DVD of Petulia, the producer says the picture fairly cried out to be made, because “You could see the world was not the same world that it was five years ago.” It’s true that Petulia‘s release date, 1968, was an undeniably tumultuous year in many areas of the globe. Still, timing doesn’t guarantee cultural insight. And for its many commendable qualities — qualities long recognized by a sizable cult of fans — Petulia doesn’t quite display it.
The movie tells a modestly compelling story about Archie (George C. Scott), a recently divorced, middle-aged, San Francisco surgeon who becomes involved with Petulia (Julie Christie), a recently married, vivacious but unstable younger woman. She spots him at a hoity-toity charity benefit, the “Shake for Highway Safety” dance (with music incongruously supplied by Big Brother & the Holding Company; the Grateful Dead show up later in the film). Leaving gorgeous new hubby David (Richard Chamberlain) amidst the shimmying crowd, she matter-of-factly informs the doctor, “We’re about to become lovers.”
Archie and Petulia meet cute several more times over the course of the film: at his bachelor pad, in a hospital delivery room, on crisscrossing cable cars. Having walked away from a stultifying marriage, he’s impressed by her flaky behavior, as it makes him “feel something.” The promised affair is (sort of) consummated but ultimately unsustainable. Archie’s final attempt to claim Petulia for himself (and to allow her to rescue him from the throes of male menopause) is thwarted when she, internalizing the blame for her husband’s physically abusive behavior, opts to stay and make the best of her current situation. As Archie meekly departs the Danners’ ultra-swank abode, Petulia watches him from the window and rationalizes to herself: “I’d have turned those beautiful hands into fists.”
The story doesn’t lack for emotional and dramatic interest, however slight it may appear. Unfortunately, director Richard Lester insists on weighing it down with Significance. Case in point: the motel Archie and Petulia check into for their first assignation is fully automated — you don’t even need to approach a desk clerk, just talk to his video screen image and give your money to the machine, lest the audience miss the point about the suburbs’ lack of intimacy. Indeed, Archie’s self-pity and Petulia’s exasperating “kookiness” recall those art cinema clichés that auteurs like Bergman, Antonioni, and Alain Resnais had been flogging since the ’50s. (I’d love to hear what Lester has to say about Petulia today. Alas, he doesn’t appear in the DVD’s making-of documentary; also missing are Christie, cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, and surviving screenwriter Barbara Turner. Why did Warner Home Video bother?)
Art movie mannerisms permeated American studio filmmaking in 1968, from Rosemary’s Baby to Head, but Petulia exemplifies this infiltration at its most excessive. The French New Wave camera and editing tics that Lester deployed in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) fit its exuberant tone and masked the Beatles’ limited acting range. But Petulia features a cast of solid professionals with screen presence to burn. Even Chamberlain, out of his league among Scott, Christie, and Shirley Knight, rises to the occasion with a terrifically creepy passive-aggressive performance.
It’s therefore difficult to understand Lester’s apparent lack of trust in his actors’ ability to carry the picture. Roeg’s cinematography is never less than handsome, but filters, rack focus, and the telephoto lens are all overused. Even more obtrusive is the cutting. Seldom do Lester and editor Antony Gibbs make it through a scene without stitching in several quick inserts. An image of Petulia throwing a rock through a music store window seems subjectively motivated; others are apparent flash-forwards. Repeated shots, like that of the star-crossed lovers posed stiffly before the Golden Gate Bridge, go entirely unexplained.
Such fragmented editing makes comprehension of the story somewhat more challenging. Indeed, judging from the poster art, the theatrical trailer, and a vintage featurette, all included on the DVD, Petulia was both conceived and marketed as a “puzzling” film designed to provide the viewer with “a lot to talk about afterward.”
What is most effective in Petulia is that which is most conventional: story and performance. But even as characters refuse to break through their self-absorption and take notice of the changing world around them, the film relegates world events (e.g., the Vietnam War, never referenced by the characters yet repeatedly visible on Archie’s unwatched television) to the periphery, suggesting the film aspires to social commentary, but stops short.