on February 7, 2000
There's an oft-repeated list of breakthrough films from the 1960's that contains the great: Dr. Strangelove, Point Blank, Bonnie & Clyde, Blow Up; the good: The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy; and the unwatchable: Easy Rider. But never Petulia! Why? Richard Lester's dazzling arsenal of jump-cuts, flash-forwards and flash-backs--used to comic effect in A Hard Day's Night and The Knack--are harnassed to a scathing and ahead-of-its-time analysis of various San Franciscans during the Summer of Love. I've seen the film at various times over 30 years and I still catch throwaway visuals and verbal asides that add resonance to the story. The performances are pitch perfect--with Julie Christie proving that no star since Audrey Hepburn combined beauty, talent and mystery in quite the same way. The cameos capture the city during that pivotal summer: Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Grateful Dead in performance; Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir taunting Petulia as she's carried into an ambulance; Howared Hesseman--later of TV's WKRP, giving George C. Scott the stoned treatment as he wanders around chilling looking, faceless Daly City. This doesn't celebrate the dawning of the Age of Aquarius--it dissects it, damns it, and, oddly enough, ends up finding some heart beneath the cool. It's a '60s classic that's aged as beautifully as, say, Bonnie & Clyde, which is the fate of very few "breakthrough" films.
on August 22, 2006
The beautiful Julie Christie - there has never been another screen actress, before or after who has had 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 finally released 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.
on January 21, 2003
Richard Lester's hazy "Petulia" is Top Ten list material, in my opinion. More the prototype for Soderberg's "The Limey" than even "Point Blank" was, this film is a masterpiece of fractured time, subjective narration, and non-linear editing.
"Petulia" tells the story of two very different people whose lives irrevocably intersect in a vague search for place and self in the 1960s. Lester claims to have shaped "Petulia"'s characters as symbols of 1960s America, and yet rarely has the cinema offered such complex and three-dimensional characters. The title character in particular, played by Julie Christie, is a young "kook" recently married into comfortable wealth, and whose behavior is not only unpredicatable, but erratic to the point of schizophrenia. George C. Scott's Archie is a rather serious doctor in the midst of a divorce (he terminated his marriage, he says, because he'd tired of being "a handsome couple") and making a rather forced effort to enjoy new bachelorhood. In the opening scene, Petulia tells Archie, "I've been married six months and I've never had an affair." After much discussion, but no kissing, Archie and Petulia decide, almost out of resignation, to have an affair. What these characters take from each other is a very complicated thing, which I can only describe as brief protection from what seems inevitable loneliness. Certainly they're an interesting pair. Über-critic Pauline Kael describes Julie Christie's portrayal of Petulia as "lewd and anxious, expressive and empty, brilliantly faceted but with something central missing, almost as if there's no woman inside." I couldn't say it better myself. George C. Scott's Archie is a brilliantly understated masculine foil to this Petulia. Richard Combs wrote of him in Film Comment as representative of a type "reduced to inertia, impotence, terminal ambivalence by the fact that they see too clearly and feel too keenly the compromises that society demands."
Kael is quite hard on this film. I'd characterize most of her criticisms of "Petulia" as reactionary, but because she's Pauline Kael, they're worth hearing out. Kael writes of "Petulia" as a "come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-America-party." Though certainly there's a heavy dose of 60s existential angst, I'd say one of the most striking things about "Petulia" is its characters' refusal to fit neatly *as characters,* much less as archetypes, or even to operate at the service of the narrative (as you'd expect of people who are, frankly, figments of that narrative). This works brilliantly with the film's themes of disillusionment and confused identity in a time of both personal and cultural upheaval. "Petulia" was filmed in San Francisco at the tail end of the Summer of Love and released in the wake of youth movements that exploded throughout the west in `68. Rather than showcasing the socio-historical import of the era, Lester soaks up all the disillusionment of a major letdown. (Kael calls "Petulia" Lester's "hate letter to America.") In "Petulia," free-spiritedness reveals itself as irresponsibility, passion gives way to rage, and self-preservation is confused for selfishness. Consequences loom large over Archie and Petulia.
Antony Gibbs' editing is key here. Flashes backward and forward in time and memory weave throughout "Petulia." Brief ellipses of violence, guilt, and regret interrupt and even haunt the narrative like irrepressible thoughts and compulsive memories. Again, Archie and Petulia cannot confrom to the narrative - their very thoughts disrupt it. Gibbs' editing almost dictates the film's style more than Lester's direction does. Its also one of the things Kael most strongly attacked. "The images of `Petulia' don't make valid connections, they're joined together for shock and excitement," she said. The rant goes on, saying Gibbs' editing was "the most insanely obvious method of cutting film ever devised; keep the audience jumping with cuts, juxtapose startling images, anything for effectiveness." On paper, this is a valid criticism of fractured, cubist editing. But in the particular case of this film I think the editing's value skyrockets as a means of getting deep inside our two main characters.
But moving on, "Petulia" is above all a film about people *within a time and place.* "Petulia" is cluttered with electric razors, remote-controlled fireplaces, elevators, and other gadgets of better living. Archie in particular is given real depth by his consistent placement in mininal steel-and-glass interiors. (Nicolas Roeg's photography is very much in line with what he did once he began directing.) Archie's apartment is both grand and modern with high ceilings and walls that glow with white sleekness. Occasional pieces of abstract art decorate the space, pieces one can imagine Archie hand-picking with conviction but little interest. Archie's presence sits somewhere between strong, understated strength and classical refinement. Archie's time with Petulia is clearly the most significant of his forays into bachelorhood and into the zeitgeist of the day. Richard Combs correctly notes that Petulia becomes "the measure by which everything else falls short." It's difficult to speak on how well the two personalities get along, except perhaps to say that each is certainly changed for its time with the other. There is true and painful awkwardness in every interaction in "Petulia," due largely to the obligations attached to each character's role in each relationship. The reality of each character's unique responsibilities to each other character in the film becomes downright oppressive - fascinating in the context of what was to be remembered as the height of glorious irresponsibility. Petulia, in part a representation of the carefree lifestyle associated with San Francisco in 1968, is no more free of these roles and their responsibilities than Archie is. The great accomplishment of Petulia and Archie's relationship is its attempt to transcend these roles. When the two decide at the film's opening to have an affair, it seems as though they've gravitated to one another partly for the total lack of context for their relationship. As such a pair, they could be, and certainly try to be, heroes of a modern landscape that separately, and ultimately, they are confined by.
on July 28, 2006
I was really taken aback about how groundbreaking a film "Petulia" is but I really shouldn't have. Richard Lester introduced some innovative techniques with "A Hard Day's Night" in 1964 but that gets overlooked because it was in the service of a musical comedy. "Petulia" is a terrific marriage of acting, storytelling, and technique. The title and cover art suggest a story about a mysterious woman named Petulia (Julie Christie). The real puzzle that has to be unraveled is that of an emotionally remote doctor named Archie Bollen played by George C. Scott. Combined with the cross-cutting and a superb performance by Scott we begin to unravel the essence of Archie. There are terrific performances all around including Christie as the empathetic Petulia, Richard Chamberlain as her abusive husband, and Shirley Knight as Archie's neglected ex-wife. Lester has provided great atmosphere here by capitalizing on the faces,places, and colors that were late sixties San Francisco. Lester is aided by top-notch craftsmen in lensman Nic Roeg, a haunting score by John Barry, and also of note is the contribution of associate art director Dean Tavalouris who later worked extensively with Francis Ford Coppola. It should be noted that "Petulia" received no Oscar nominations in 1968.
on November 20, 2003
All the other reviews printed here confirm my long lasting enthuasm for "Petulia". I have screened it at least twice each year since the tape was released.
Lacking in the other comments ( printed here) is the central theme, as I saw it.
The conflict of a disaffected professional whose real life was in the operating room. He walks away from a seemingly "perfect" marriage for reasons even he cannot understand. He is looking for something at a personal level which he cannot define. His encounter with Petulia is pure serendipity. She, for reasons of her own is also searching for meaning. They touch, briefly, and move on. The affect of their relationship on those around them provides the counterpoint to this truly heartbreaking drama.
The wild 6os in San Fransco provides a very suitable backdrop for the main theme.
The final scenes in the labor and delivery rooms are pure genius.
When she says "Archie" it tells it all.
on April 18, 2000
This move changed my life, and almost single-handedly propelled me into a career in film. If nothing else, it validates Richard Lester as an artist ahead of his time, honors George C. Scott as one of the most gifted actors of his day, and provides Julie Christie with the greatest showcase for her talents. The non-linear storytelling and the jump-cut editing is brilliant. The film's heart and lustful, confused tension defies the beautifully cold cinematography. The film pierces through the pot-smoke haze of the late-60's and blesses us with something wonderful. Thank you Mr. Lester for making this film. One of my all-tome favorites.
on April 9, 2006
PETULIA is one of my all time favorites. Incredibly beautiful, haunting, humorous and, finally, heartbreaking mosaic story of people at a time of seismic cultural shifts in america. One of the last adult relationship dramas made by Hollywood. Influenced by all that was happening in European and american film at the time , stylistically, it is a breathtaking feast of filmmaking. I saw it in college, in Dayton, Ohio, and I've never forgotten it. I've seen it, maybe 20 times, and have introduced it to many, many friends. I met the producer, Raymond Wagner, twice at PETULIA screenings at the L.A. County Museum and at the American Cinematheque, and he said that George C. Scott regarded his performanced in it as his personal favorite. Why does this film touch people in such a unique way? I've tracked down most of the locations in San francisco when i used to live there. Dr. Bolen's modern apartment location is still there on the Filbert steps beneath Coit Tower.
on August 19, 2006
Petulia happens to be one of my favority Richard Lester films and very cutting edge for its time. I love Julie Christie and she glows in this movie. George C Scott gives one of his best performances. They play out an unusual love story - she is supposedly something of a "Kook" (it is based on the novel, "Me and the Arch Kook Petulia" but she is really something more than she seems. Scott is a doctor whose marriage has ended and is at odds with his new life. Richard Chamberlain plays Petulias husband, a handsome success who hides a deeper secret.
All this plays out in swinging San Franciso in 1968. A higlight
of the film is the use of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The ending will leave a bittersweet taste.
on November 30, 2013
This mediorce film is considered "one of the decades top films" by esteemed reviewer Leonard Maltin. Every once in awhile even the best reviewers get it wrong. Julie Christie plays a carefree "Kooky" type in her pursuit of medical doctor George C. Scott. Scott is a brilliant actor but is noticably wooden in this effort. Richard Chamberland is a boring pretty boy type married to kooky Christie.
The editing is choppy - typical of other Richard Lester films. If you watch closely you see a bit of Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia, giving it that authentic San Francisco 60's rock feel to Lester's credit. Overall though, an amazingly pretentious film. There is really nothing outstanding here.
on April 4, 2006
As of April 4, 2006 this is the 16th "Petulia" review posted on Amazon. I agree with all of the 5 star comments.
The reasons for my love of this film have never been clear to me. The critiques, (posted here), clarify many of the film making values that resulted in a great movie. But, there is something deeper in the story that touches something in my experience of life. That has caused me to view it at least 25 times. And, the final "Labor" scenes always bring a lump to my throat.
It msy not be for every one. But, try it, and you may love it too.
I have wondered, over the years why the DVD has been so long in coming .
Finally, I had the privilege of talking to Shirley Knight, last year. Of course, "Petulia" was topic one, for me. She knew immediately, that the "cookie" scene was a favorite.