Richard Lester‘s Petulia is a chilly, emotionally distant film about a relationship that doesn’t quite come together, and yet there’s something very infectious and fizzy about it. I think it’s the combination of Lester’s dry ironic detachment and the odd atmospheric stirrings of what was happening in San Francisco when he shot it in the late summer and fall of 1967. There are snatches of music and marijuana and Haight-Ashbury in the periphery, but this is a film about being lonely and adrift…about wealth and comfort and social dance steps and two people who want out. It’s about a 40ish doctor (George C. Scott) who’s bored to death by almost everything in his life and a dishy, impossibly spacey rich girl (Julie Christie) who gets it in her head that Scott is some kind of cure for whatever might be ailing her. Petulia, which I return to every four or five years when I don’t feel like watching anything else, is composed of thousands of slices and fragments of everything and anything that was “happening” back then…sounds, whispers, glances. It’s somewhere between a tapestry and a jumble of pieces that don’t seem to fit, and yet they do when you step back. I think it’s one of the sharpest cultural time-capsule films Hollywood has ever churned out, and at the same time a curiously affecting love story. There an HD version on Amazon but none on Vudu or Netflix. I wish that Warner Home Video or Criterion or someone would punch out a Bluray.
“Petulia is a strange, lovely, nervous little film, very jaggedly cut so that the parts don’t quite match and the plot is almost scattered through. It begins with a rich, married, kooky waif, played by Julie Christie, propositioning a tired divorced surgeon, played by George C. Scott, at a San Francisco charity ball. The waif kook at the top type is becoming a little worn, and Petulia isn’t as inventive a character as Morgan or Holly Golightly — she only arrives with a tuba and bruises at Scott’s apartment quite early one morning — and yet there is something awfully nice about this film.” — from Renata Adler‘s N.Y. Times review (6.11.68).
“Petulia made me desperately unhappy, and yet I am unable to find a single thing wrong with it,” Roger Ebert wrote 46 years ago. “I suppose that is high praise. It is the coldest, cruelest film I can remember, and one of the most intellectual.
“By that I don’t mean it’s filled with philosophy, like Bergman, or with metaphysics, like 2001. On the contrary, it’s filled with nothing at all. It is lifeless, heartless bloodless, the expression of Lester’s abstract thought about the American way of life. And it is terribly effective.
“Off-hand, I can think of only two other films that worked this way: Antonioni’s Eclipse and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. To one degree or another, both of these inspired impatience, confusion and irritation. Yet when they were analyzed, they turned out to contain nothing more than the components of everyday life.”