Petulia (1968) ****
Directed by: Richard Lester.
B. Marcus based on the book by John Haase. Lawrence
Starring: Julie Christie (Petulia Danner),
George C. Scott (Dr. Archie Bollen), Richard Chamberlain (David Danner), Arthur Hill (Barney), Shirley Knight (Polo), Pippa Scott (May), Kathleen Widdoes (Wilma), Joseph Cotten (Mr. Danner).
I have complained a number of times during this series that many films from the 1960s have aged because the young directors at the time were so committed to making anti-studio movies, that they overdosed on stylistics. But then I see a film like Richard Lester’s Petulia, and am left speechless. Here is a film that should feel aged – it is a definite product of the 1960s, and all that entails, and certainly overdoses on the stylistics that seemed modern at the time, but seem dated today. And yet, somehow, the film still feels fresh and alive. Perhaps it’s because the film isn’t really about the “swinging 60s”, but simply set during them. There are hippies in the film, but they are mainly relegated to the background. The film is really about isolation and loneliness, set against that backdrop. It is a film that had me in its grip from beginning to end.
The film stars the great
George C. Scott as Dr. Archie Bollen, who before the movie begins, has left his wife and two small children. He doesn’t really know why, he simply knows that he no longer wants to be married to his wife Polo (Shirley Knight), even though he still loves her in a way, and definitely still loves his kids. He meets Petulia (Julie Christie) at a party, and the two seem smitten with each other. She has married David Danner (Richard Chamberlain), the son of the extremely rich Mr. Danner (Joseph Cotten), but David has issues. Serious issues, and that has made the “kook” Petulia even kookier. They head off from the party together, and end up at a strange, modern, surreal hotel – but things don’t happen as we expect them to. In fact, nothing in Petulia happens the way we expect them to. Petulia chases Archie, who sometimes resists her charms, and sometimes does not.
What I think makes Petulia so interesting is that even though it is a quintessential 1960s film, it seems ahead of its time. It’s more like a film looking back at the ‘60s, with all of it excesses than one during the 1960s, when all this seemed normal. While someone like Dennis Hopper was romanticizing the hippies of his generation, and the supposed freedom that the 1960s brought, Petulia strangely sees it all as empty and miserable. Perhaps its because the characters are older than most protagonists of films like this – not quite the age of the parents of the hippies (like Cotten in the film, who is excellent at showing his disappointment that the times, and his son, do not meet his old fashioned standards), but not young enough either to be truly a part of everything that is going on. The are stuck somewhere in between these two generations, and seem completely lost, alone and miserable. The don’t fit in anywhere.
It seems odd that Richard Lester directed this film. He was at the time best known for his two Beatles movies – A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help (1965), as well as the Palme D’Or winning comedy The Knack and How to Get It (1965), along with the black war comedy How I Won the War (1967). After Petulia, he went on to direct The Three Musketeers (1973) and Superman II (1983). What most of these films have in common is that they are comedies – and fairly light hearted. Yet Petulia is anything but. This is a dark drama, prompting Roger Ebert to say in his original 1968 review that “this is the coldest, cruelest film I can recall” (although it should be noted that Ebert did in fact give the film four stars). So it is cruel, and cold, but that is appropriate given what the movie is about.
Petulia is a very odd film indeed. I’m not quite sure I can think of another film of its time quite like it. While filming the movie, apparently
George C. Scott confessed that he had no idea what it was about, but he was confident Lester knew, so he trusted it. But you wouldn’t know that Scott didn’t know what the film was about from watching his performance – one every bit as good as the best work of the actor’s career. Here he is a sad man, walking through his life, not quite knowing what to make of it all. He is trying to connect with somebody – or something – but ultimately finds no such connection. Julie Christie is every bit his equal in the title role – a woman who is a “kook”, but uses that to disguise her pain and torment, right up until the final scene of the film. Richard Chamberlain, who Lester told was cast because he reminded him of “an empty coke bottle”, is quite good as well. Yes, for much of the film he seems beautiful, but empty, yet when we learn late in the film his secrets, we wish we hadn’t. Shirley Knight is also fantastic as Scott’s wife, who doesn’t understand why she was left, and simply wants to retreat back into the safe life they made together.
Petulia doesn’t much show up on greatest films lists. Perhaps it’s because Lester never really became a truly great director – except at least in the eyes of Steven Soderbergh, who is a big fan. And yet, Petulia is a great film. A one of a kind film from the 1960s, who saw that decades failures more clearly than any film of its time that I can think of.