Judge Patrick Bromley tried planting petulias this spring, but they came up all twisted and broken.
…the uncommon movie.
I have a confession to make. Prior to this review, I was totally unfamiliar with Richard Lester's 1968 film, Petulia. Hadn't even heard of it. To anyone who's either shocked or offended by this admission, I apologize. I'm learning.
When the time came to sit down and watch the film, I decided to do some digging online and see what the word was about Petulia. Much to my surprise, the movie has a large and extremely devoted fan base, all of whom seem to be eagerly awaiting what they perceive to be a long overdue DVD release by Warner Bros.
So what's all the fuss about?
Facts of the Case
Archie Bollen (George C. Scott, Patton) is a doctor going through a divorce with his wife, Polo (a young and gorgeous Shirley Knight, As Good As It Gets). While at a high-class social function one night, Archie meets Petulia Danner (Julie Christie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo), a beautiful and eccentric married woman who instantly tries to talk Archie into having an affair with her. Archie agrees, and as the two begin their difficult and dark courtship, more secrets about Petulia and her past are revealed—including the true nature of her marriage to a playboy (Richard Chamberlain, The Towering Inferno).
Richard Lester's Petulia is a film that is at once very much of its time, and yet years ahead of it. I'm not certain that I understood it all, but I'm ok with that. This is not a movie that gives up all of its secrets with a single viewing. That it is so dense and layered that it demands to be seen again is high praise. That I am anxious to see it again is even higher praise.
Within the first few minutes of the movie, a few thoughts entered my head. The first was that this movie, with its fragmented, flashback/flash-forward, dreamlike editing has been influencing a number of my favorite films for decades (it's a lot like John Boorman's Point Blank, another great film of the 1960s, that way). The second was that its cinematography, with its meticulous palette full of striking reds, was an obvious influence on Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (the participation of Julie Christie in both only made the parallel that much clearer). Of course, as I would find out, the cinematographer of Petulia is, in fact, Roeg himself. This would explain the similarity.
Petulia is a frustrating and sad film, but never depressing—as Ebert says, no good movie is. It's disconnected, but because it's about disconnect. Both characters find themselves trapped in an unhappiness of their own making, but neither really understands how they got there. Archie is going through a divorce, but doesn't even know why; Petulia is married to an abusive man, but isn't exactly looking for a way out. Both believe that they will be "fixed" by one another, but we all know better—there's no chance of healing each other if they cannot heal themselves. They have all of the newest technology in the world at their disposals, too, as Petulia is placed smack in the middle of a clash between free love and "progress." This is a cold, clinical movie, overpowered by innovation and automation. Humanity is a thing of the past.
The word "kook" is repeatedly used to describe Petulia (the movie is based on John Haase's novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia), but that's misleading. That implies she's flaky and fun. Goldie Hawn is a kook. Petulia is damaged and numb, and Julie Christie captures her hollowed-out vacancy with tragic precision; between this film and Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Christie has the market cornered on this character. Petulia wants to be a free-spirited kook—or, at least, wants everyone around her to believe that she is one—but it's simply not in her. Even committing to an affair proves to be too much for her; try as she might, she's not built for that kind of departure from the reality of her life. And who can blame her? Every character in this movie (even Chamberlain, who is unequipped to face the reality of himself as a pretty boy) is being slowly crushed by the burden of reality around them. Lester's movie understands this bleakness and wants to reflect, not deny, it. At its end, we are not given the chance for hope—only more loneliness.
Warner Bros. has done their usual excellent work with the DVD release of Petulia. The film, presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 playback, looks stunning—Nicolas Roeg's gorgeous photography is given its due. The only audio tracks offered are both mono (one in English, the other in French), which is the right choice here; not only is it faithful to the source, but it's the only way to make this thing sound right—the twang on those electric guitar solos (during the movie's several musical interludes, performed by the likes of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead) wouldn't sound proper with a fuller mix. Trust me on this.
As solid as the video and audio quality are, it's too bad that Warner Bros. couldn't deliver the same quality with their extras—the disc is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to supplements. A too-short making-of retrospective is included, but too few of the movie's participants are allowed to reflect (though a number of the key players, like Lester and Scott, have passed on or were otherwise occupied). A "vintage featurette," which is essentially an old making-of piece, is valuable for its novelty and for the chance to see some footage of Lester directing on set, but that's about as far as it goes. The only other extra included is the movie's original theatrical trailer, which goes out of its way to prepare audiences for the challenges inherent in Petulia.
I'm intrigued by the fact that I was previously unaware of Petulia, not only because of how well acted and crafted it is, but also because of how revolutionary it feels—even now. Bonnie and Clyde is consistently given the credit for ushering in filmmaking in the 1970s—a decade that produced movies that were more honest, realistic, darker and more cynical than the preceding years. I have to believe whether audiences of the time were aware of it or not, Richard Lester's Petulia is every bit as influential and important. It is a film that has to be seen to be appreciated, then seen again to be understood. Most movies can be avoided or forgotten. Petulia cannot be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• New Featurette: "The Making of Petulia
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