The artful manipulation of time in The Godfather films—the past coexisting with the present—is more than just a stylistic conceit; it's an essential representation of the films' narrative themes of destiny and predetermination. In Petulia, the conveyance of time as a nonlinear phenomenon reflective of the characters' fractured lives (a point of annoyance for several critics back in 1968), is no less fundamental to the telling of this distinctly Sixties, yet timeless, story.
|Down on Me|
Well-heeled attendees of a charity fundraising dance "Shake for Highway Safety" react to the rock group Big Brother & the Holding Company (Janis Joplin)
Richard Lester’s Petulia is the story of a small group of very pretty people whose perfect-looking lives are nevertheless bloody battlefields strewn with the carnage of emotional (sometimes physical) violence every bit as senseless and arbitrary as the glaring images of the Vietnam War that flicker from the largely ignored TV sets running nonstop in every room. Depicted in an artfully disjointed style which intercuts flash-forwards and flashbacks with scenes occurring in the here and now, Petulia examines the tentative love affair between impulsive, unhappily married newlywed Petulia (Christie) and the generationally displaced surgeon Archie (Scott). Archie is an old-fashionedly decent man facing a kind of existential mid-life crisis in the midst of "The Pepsi Generation," and he doesn't know quite what to make of it all.
Just as Coppola's use of flashbacks in The Godfather created a sense of history encroaching upon the present, Petulia is an almost-love-story told in a time-tripping, hopscotch fashion so organic to the era (the swinging Sixties); the place (Summer of Love San Francisco); and characters (the beautiful people), that it’s impossible to imagine the film realized in any other way.
|Julie Christie as Petulia Danner|
|George C. Scott as Archie Bollen|
|Richard Chamberlain as David Danner|
|Shirley Knight as Polo (Prudence) Bollen|
|Joseph Cotten as Mr. Danner|
|Although they share no scenes together, Petulia reunites Kathleen Widdoes (pictured) with her The Group co-star, Shirley Knight|
Petulia (based on the John Haase novel, Me and the Arch Kook Petulia) is very effective, not to mention outrageously stylish, in the ways it depicts the messy complexity of relationships. Contrary to what songs, romance novels, and fairy tales would have us believe, really connecting with another human being is a frustratingly difficult business. It's imperfect, inconsistent, and comprised of a million little disappointments and uncertainties, all tethered to an overpowering but seldom acknowledged need for human contact.
As Petulia is as much a social satire as a poignantly bleak meditation on emotional authenticity (“Real, honest-to-God tears, Petulia?”), the picture of America that Lester paints is one of alienating mechanization and deceptive appearances. Richard Lester’s San Francisco is one of automatized motels; switch-on fireplaces; indoor flowers that die when exposed to real sunlight; decoy hospital room TV sets; sullen flower children; nuns driving Porches; topless restaurants; gloomy all-night supermarkets; and kiddie excursions to Alcatraz Prison (which is a reality now, but was not, if I remember correctly, the case back in 1967).
|Among the row houses of Daly City, Archie seeks the assistance of two two non-cooperative hippies (that's WKRP's Howard Hessman in the pink shirt)|
No one does sham superficiality better than Julie Christie. From Darling's narcissistic Diana Scott, Far From the Madding Crowd's perniciously thoughtless Bathsheba, to the emotionally vacant Linda Montag of Fahrenheit 451, Christie has made a career of adding depth and dimension to otherwise unsympathetically shallow characters.
The walking contradiction that is Petulia Danner: arch posturing one moment, self-recriminating anguish the next, is one of Julie Christie's strongest most persuasive performances.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A film set in '60s San Francisco is bound to be visually vivid, and Petulia is a marvelous-looking movie whose color photography is as expressive as it is overwhelming. There are psychedelic light shows accompanying musical appearances by The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, striking vistas of Bay Area locations, and the candy-colored mod fashions of the day take on a fairly 3D effect.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
It's always struck me as a curious phenomenon how so many films from the '80s and '90s can appear so dated to me, yet most of my favorite films from the late -'60s and '70s seem to have a timelessness about them. I don't pretend to know the reason, but I suspect it's because so many '60s and '70s films are about people and relationships, while '80s and '90s films are chiefly the result of pitches, formulas, and focus groups. Ignore the swinging '60s window dressing (but who would want to?) and Petulia is as topically relevant today as it was in 1968. Perhaps more so
|Estrangement. The natural consequence of erecting barriers in the avoidance of pain|
On the strength of one month's ownership of the DVD and three viewings, Petulia has become my absolute favorite Richard Lester film. The first American feature from a director known for his bold comedic style, Petulia is not as great a thematic departure as it at first appears. There are plentiful examples of Lester's penchant for absurdist humor, caustic irony, and the sad/funny details of human interaction. But what distinguishes Petulia for me is the humanity at the core of this little microscopic vision of the world. That and the sophisticated style of its execution. In that, Petulia is indeed an uncommon movie.
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2012