Daring. Surprising. Dreamy. Experimental. Challenging. Funny. Form pushing. Convention shattering. Most of all – beyond sexy. Richard Lester’s 1968 drama Petulia, from a screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus who adapted John Haase’s novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, must’ve shaken up everyone who encountered it in the late 60’s. Being a child of the 80’s, I was more familiar with Lester’s Superman II & III, with my father also showing me Robin & Marian and The Three Musketeers, so Petulia and other earlier, more celebrated works from this idiosyncratic auteur have eluded me up until this point. Now having seen it, I can honestly state that one should never underestimate this film’s importance on the cinematic landscape at the time of its release. The seismic waves it must have made with other filmmakers and editors and cinematographers in relation to the overall aesthetic that Lester brought to the table with Petulia simply can’t be ignored. Steven Soderbergh has often cited Lester as a massive inspiration, and it’s not hard to see why; Sodgerbergh’s hilarious idea to have Marvin Hamlisch score his masterful satire The Informant! predominantly with a kazoo was a novel touch, and something that Lester would likely approve of.
The jagged narrative of Petulia is delivered in non-linear fashion, peppered with flash-backs and flash-forwards, and tells a San Francisco set tale of lust, passion, rage, and deceit, all revolving around a surgeon (the magnificent and rigid George C. Scott), his ex-wife (Shirley Knight), his sultry lover (the phenomenal Julie Christie as the titular character), her abusive husband (the fantastic Richard Chamberlain), and Petulia’s father-in-law (Joseph Cotten, terrific in a scene stealing supporting performance). There’s a lot of plot in Petulia, all of it jumbled, but all of it still coherent, which is a testament to Lester’s ability to tell a multilayered story with clarity and focus while still being able to indulge his wilder stylistic impulses. This film was made by a sly Brit, who appears to be looking down upon the American way of life that was unfolding at the time, dishing out scornful resentment, and as such, there’s a cold, almost condescending attitude to some of the interplay between the characters. But that’s partly a reflection of the societal mood at the time, and the way that people from other cultures view those who are different.
And because this film was the product of such a turbulent period in time, with Vietnam raging on in the background and upheaval on every corner, Petulia brims with a sense of immediacy and a filmic vitality that other works rarely ever achieve. And yet most critics, with some exceptions (Ebert most notably), seemed put off by the film, potentially not wanting to agree with the bold and upsetting points that Lester made with this strange and uncompromising film. It’s a movie that looks at the intricacies of romantic relationships, peeling them back, examining the ingredients, and daring to look at flawed individuals who make decisions that may not be the best. With amazingly jittery and at times hallucinatory cinematography by future filmmaker Nicolas Roeg and a jaunty musical score from John Barry that includes tunes from The Grateful Dead and many others, Petulia enlivens the senses and puts the viewer into a trance-like state at times. The hippie-flavoring of this film really makes it stand out in the sense that it has such a unique, spontaneous vibe that leaves you feeling hopped up and ready for action. Petulia has so much on its busy, seemingly tortured mind: Sex, violence, materialism, love, marriage, anger, and above all, the need to take action in a world that’s constantly at odds with itself.