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.