Sunday 19 January 2014


(Richard Lester, 1968)

Petulia is very much a neglected or lost classic. Many "lost" films gain that status because they are commercial failures upon their release, and this was the fate of Petulia. Lester had a strange, uneven career, and is probably best-remembered today for his two films for the Beatles, A Hard Days Night and Help!, or his later big budget work for the Salkinds on the Musketeers films and Superman 2. But he made a handful of great films, and even his lesser work is interesting, and, particularly in his early career, extremely distinctive visually. After the failure of Petulia, and even more catastrophically, his surreal film of Spike Milligan's post-apocalyptic satire The Bed Sitting Room, Lester turned away from cinema for a few years, and when he returned his vision seemed trained intently on the past, with the exception of the allegorical disaster movie Juggernaut. He made a series of excellent costume spectacles, starting with the Three Musketeers and perhaps peaking with the beautiful Robin & Marian in 1976. But he seemed to lose any appetite for the politically engaged, topical cinema he had created in the 60s, which is a shame considering the quality of films like the Knack, and particularly Petulia.

The film traces the brief affair between Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), a San Francisco doctor in the middle of an emotionally confused divorce, and Petulia Danner (Julie Christie), a young socialite who is troubled by the complications in her marriage to David (Richard Chamberlain). Lester combines this love story with a damning indictment of a changing America in the late 1960s. The film is full of allusions to violence - car accidents, brutal wife-beating, the Vietnam War endlessly playing on television - and the dehumanising aspects of technology. This is a city where supermarkets open 24 hours a day, and become empty temples to consumerism by night, as suggested by the shot of Petulia and Archie pushing round a trolley loaded with food he doesn't want. The motel they visit is automated, as is the greenhouse Archie recieves as a present, with its "lights that work better than the sun".

But the pleasures of Petulia are primarily sensual. Before revealing himself to be a visionary Director, Nic Roeg was an amazing Director of Photography - his work on Far From the Madding Crowd and Farenheit 451 being the best examples - and, on Petulia, he and Lester worked together to give the film a unique look and style. Its pallette is composed of warm but luminous colours, and since many of the scenes were shot on location in Haight & Ashbury, the background is always vivid and interesting. Lester makes several references to Hitchcock's use of San Francisco in Vertigo, but stylistically, his work seems more influenced by the French New Wave, with his jump-cuts and elliptical editing, and Roeg's compositions often finding characters framed by objects, and even the city itself seen through the lines of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The story is told with the aid of many flashbacks and flash-forwards, and scenes are interrupted by brief snatches of scenes from earlier or later in the narrative. Sometimes they seem to suggest the characters are being jolted by memories or premonitions, but they are also used as thematic signifiers so that Lester can juxtapose two images, as in the moment where Archie flinches at the violence at a Roller Derby because it reminds him of finding Petulia's battered body in his apartment, and the film seems to be making a connection between the prevalence of violence in modern culture and its influence on personal behavior. These flash-cuts also serve to emphasise the theme of miscommunication, as Archie and Petulia struggle to get through to each other throughout the film. Indeed, the only time the rhythm of the editing really slows down is in the scene between Petulia and David near the film's end, where a reconciliation seems possible.

John Barry had worked with Lester on the Knack, and his score for Petulia, recently sampled by the Cinematic Orchestra, is one of his most romantic and moving. Indeed, the film itself is extremely moving. It starts off seeming a little dated, with its cuts to Scott wandering around a psychedelic club and Christie's determinedly kooky behaviour, but both actors give tremendous performances. Scott, always slightly ill-at-ease in a suit, his bullish form too reined in, allows some melancholy and vulnerability to drip into the fierceness and sourness his screen presence always provides. Christie was perhaps at the apex of her spectacular beauty in 1968, but she was best in roles that asked her to suggest some darkness beneath the sunniness of her looks, and here she reveals a depth and complexity many of her pin-up contemporaries could never match. The way their relationship stumbles and finally fades away as they both lie to themselves, and the final shot of Petulia's face as she speaks Archie's name, are full of sadness and regret. While certain aspects of the film possibly do initially seem dated, they also suggest that the film captures the time and place it records with a commendable precison and authenticity, and the emotional impact of the story and performances combine to render such criticisms irrelevant.

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