(director: Richard Lester; screenwriters: from John Haase’s novel “Me and the Arch Kook Petulia”/Lawrence B. Marcus/Barbara Turner; cinematographer: Nicolas Roeg; editor: Antony Gibbs; cast: Julie Christie (Petulia Danner), George C. Scott (Archie Bollen), Shirley Knight (Polo), Richard Chamberlain (David), Arthur Hill (Barney), Pippa Scott (May), Kathleen Widdoes (Wilma), Joseph Cotten (Mr. Danner), Richard Dysart (Motel Receptionist), Roger Bowen (Warren), Eric Weiss (Michael), Kevin Cooper (Stevie), Vincent Arias (Oliver), Nate Esformes (Mr. Mendoza), Lou Gilbert (Mr. Howard); Runtime: 105; Warner/Petersham; 1968-UK)


“I thought this film was more claptrap than anything else.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Richard Lester who did two Beatle films, Help! (65) and A Hard Day’s Night (64), is the director of this romantic/comedy, giving it a satirical British flavor. Petulia plays like a soap opera, set in San Francisco during the late 1960s. It has a few gratuitous shots of Janis Joplin and Big Brother & the Holding Company, plus one of the Grateful Dead playing to a largely non-hippie audience. It is, indeed, mind-boggling to have so little acid rock in a film pretending to be about the mod ’60s. The film reminded me most of a General Hospital sudser, with a few noted Nicolas Roeg cinematography tricks, pre-Performance, thrown in to give it a deeper look than the picture merited, such as jump cuts, time frame changes back and forth and forward, leaving one with a disjointed feeling about when the events actually took place. The innovations, which make the film seem unconventional, all come about through the visual rhythm of the film rather than through the story itself.

George C. Scott is an upper-middle-class orthopedic surgeon, Archie Bollen. He’s a great doctor but a troubled man, who walked out of a perfect marriage saying: “One day, I just got tired of being married.” He’s smug; but, he also becomes a tragic figure when he falls hard for a shallow, kooky but very attractive married lady, Petulia Danner (Julie Christie). She picks him up at a charity event attended by the social elites. Archie’s problem is that his personal life never equals the success of his career. Later on, through flashback, we will learn the reason Petulia becomes hot for him is because he operated successfully on a Mexican kid she is connected with.

These two, I guess, are meant to be reflective of the radical times in America, but not in the ordinary way the Sixties are usually depicted: of Vietnam War demonstrators, Civil Rights protesters, sexual freedom advocates, hippies, rock music fans, and druggies. Here, we have two very mixed-up upper-class straight people who are as different as night and day, somehow needing each other. He is a middle-aged man who can’t really figure out why he left his wonderful wife Polo (Knight) and his two sons, and he also can’t figure out what he is now looking for; while, she’s a twenty-something, into a marriage for only six months with a very wealthy and good-looking but abusive man, David (Chamberlain), whom she can’t figure out if she likes or doesn’t. So she decides that she must have an affair with a married man. To make matters worst, she is living unhappily in the mansion David’s parents live in. The good thing about David’s parents, is that the father is Joseph Cotten and it’s always great to hear his uniquely rich voice on the screen.

Polo settles for second best meeting a nice, stable engineer, Warren (Bowen), whom the kids (Weiss/Cooper) adore, but who is homely and colorless. The doctor’s friends, his colleague Barney (Arthur Hill) and his chatter-box wife Wilma (Widdoes), can’t make head or tail out of their friend’s recent actions, pushing for him to go back with Polo.

Flashbacks occur whenever a close-up of one of these characters has a puzzled look on their kisser. In one of Petulia’s flashbacks we see a young boy, Oliver (Arias), in Mexico jump into the Rolls Royce that Petulia was driving and he crosses the border with her, going as far as her San Francisco mansion. Whereby David kicks him out, but gives him his Rolex watch. In a later flashback, we see that the kid got hit by a car on his way to the bus station, and through subsequent flashbacks we learn that he is still alive and that Petulia is giving someone guilt money to look after him.

If you ask me, I thought this film was more claptrap than anything else. But enjoyable claptrap. It was easy to take, and even if the story didn’t go anywhere, it did catch something unique about the 1960s that wasn’t seen in other films — how the wealthy took to the changes without the usual ways of rebelling.

Julie was super. She had a craziness about her that made her pause to take stock of her life, but not enough to drop-out. A socialite’s kookiness was her forte. George C. Scott looked grumpy for most of the film, but seemed to gain a little of the revolutionary spirit of the times when he was with the kooky Petulia. He looked like he was into the 1960s as he was returning a tuba Julie stole from an old friend that she brought with her on their first tryst at his apartment.

Aside from the brilliant performances this surreal-styled film with its successful flashbacks but not so successful flash-forwards, was mostly a disorientated and emotionally cold film. It was impossible to warm up to these elusive and neurotic characters, each trapped by fate or indecision. By the film’s end, the same problems that existed in the beginning were still present. Richard Chamberlain remains a jealous husband, unsure of his wife’s commitment. Julie Christie is unable to know if she can love somebody. George C. Scott is still chasing something that he is not sure of. Arthur Hill and Kathleen Widdoes stay married because it is the safest thing to do and not because they are happy together. They all have quirky personalities, but they are all straight and it seems odd that a film so grounded in the ’60s actually missed having truly representative characters of that age.

Petulia (1968)