Julie Christie and George C. Scott in 1968's "Petulia."

Petulia April 18, 2019  

DIRECTED BY

Richard Lester

 

STARRING

Julie Christie

George C. Scott

Richard Chamberlain

Arthur Hill

Shirley Knight

 

RATED

NR

 

RELEASED IN

1968

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 45 Mins.

P

etulia (Julie Christie) and Archie (George C. Scott) meet for the first time at a benefit concert for traffic-accident victims. Janis Joplin is lip-synching on stage, seemingly accompanied by Big Brother & the Holding Company; a couple of muscle cars, ornamental, in a way, sit in the middle of the dance floor. Petulia is a chestnut-haired, aimless 20-something-year-old whom Archie rightfully calls a “kook” after he gets 

to know her a little better. The assured, kempt Archie is a middle-aged doctor. Both are married, Petulia to the dark, matinee idol-looking but physically abusive David (Richard Chamberlain), Archie to the good-natured, honey-blonde Polo (Shirley Knight), with whom he has kids. Shortly after being introduced, Petulia blithely suggests she and Archie begin an affair. It doesn’t seem so much like she’s animalistically attracted to him as much as it does that she figures that having an affair at a certain point in your marriage is just a thing you’re supposed to do. A well-off, 40-ish, decently good-looking doctor seems a great object on which to romantically fixate.

 

All this is rather superficial-sounding. The flightiness isn't helped, at least at the outset, from the modish style offered by director John Lester and screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus. But it turns out that, in Petulia, a French New Wave-like approach, coupled with a sometimes-raving performance from Christie, is all a front. The affair set in motion early on, totally reckless and hedonistic, is exactly what the film first seems to be: a fun, rash excursion in surface-level pleasure. But as the film progresses is it clear that Lester and Marcus are not going for exactly what we think they’re going for. This is a movie about a tragic affair, it turns out. The utmost subversion, aside from the sometimes feverish visual style, is that the tragedy doesn’t much have to do with an actual death and more so the sad place one of the characters ends up.

 

Petulia feels, too, like an indictment of both unthinking pleasure-seeking and materialism more broadly. The characters, perhaps aside from the sympathetic Polo, who has to pick up life's pieces when Archie tosses aside many of them, pursue their temptations without looking back. The tedium of their lives is so pronounced that, in some moments, purchasing something here, partaking in an affair there, seems as if it could clear all; responsibilities and priorities be damned. But in Petulia, which takes place in a great-looking but almost too great-looking San Francisco, nothing you do, especially the so-called sinful thing, can rid you of your malcontent. All you can do is distract yourself from time to time. So often all you have to show for your bad decisions later on are the people you’ve hurt or what they’ve done to you in response; Petulia doesn't overemphasize one part of this arc over another. 

 

Is this movie too cruel, downcast for its own good? Lester and co.’s recreation of American life, 1960s or otherwise, with its fatuous keep-it-moving ethos, is too precise and perceptive to be melodramatically depressed. The way it portrays unhappy marriages, toxic relationships, humdrum working lives, isn’t so much pessimistic as it is pragmatic — these are lived-in characters who have discernible real-life equivalents. It’s too much a reflection to be cast aside as a needless exercise in misery. A-