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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 105 Minutes
• New Featurette: The Uncommon Making of Petulia
• Vintage Featurette: Petulia: The Uncommon Movie
• Theatrical Trailer
“It’s just like Say Anything, except without the bullshit forced whimsy! Oh yeah, and Lloyd Dobler’s fucking Richard Chamberlain.”
Julie Christie, George C. Scott, Richard Chamberlain, Arthur Hill, Shirley Knight, Joseph Cotten
Petulia is a kook, as the movie is fond of telling us. She’s flighty and free-spirited and seemingly carefree, and for some odd reason she’s attracted to Archie, a recently divorced doctor who’s a wee bit repressed. Sounds like Archie might learn a thing or two about livin’ large, huh? I smell a sitcom! Except not. ‘Cause, see, Petulia’s a whole lot more screwed-up than she lets on, and Archie might not be the person to save her. Don’t expect a happy ending, people…
Patton would shoot the fuck out of that.
When most people think of director Richard Lester (if they think of him at all), they think, “Hey, it’s the genius behind A Hard Day’s Night and Help!” Or, “Hey, it’s the Salkinds’ bitch,” if they’re really movie-savvy. No one thinks about this film, and it’s a shame because Petulia is one of the greatest films ever made.
Let me repeat that.
Petulia is one of the greatest films ever made.
This film, Lester’s masterpiece, works on so many levels. It’s the seminal examination of the late ‘60s and the whole hippie subculture, set (of course) in San Francisco. It’s a tragic love story, one of the most heart-breaking ever filmed. It’s a boldly experimental and challenging art film. So why do so few people give this film its due?
I know this is a serious movie and all, but– Nice.
I think it’s because Lester’s worldview here is so pessimistic. The majority of his oeuvre, from his films with the Beatles, to his telling of The Three Musketeers, to his work with a certain Man of Steel, has been propelled by infectious, good-natured buoyancy. Terrible things rarely occur in Lester’s films, and when they do, they come at the breakneck pace of a food fight in a Three Stooges piece. Petulia’s a different beast. It’s bleak, cold, uncompromising. Man is tiny, waiting for the world to crush him, and love cannot save him. The sterile lack of humanity in this film feels more akin to something by Stanley Kubrick than by Lester. But that bleakness gives the film a maturity that Lester’s never come close to, both before or after.
No place can you see that maturity better than in Lester’s depiction of the late 1960s. If there’s ever been a more romanticized time period, then I haven’t seen it (and if there is, don’t tell me. Let me have this). The ‘60s meant Woodstock. They meant rock and roll and free love and expanding your consciousness and giving peace a chance, right? But people love to accentuate the positive. The ’60s also meant bad trips and Vietnam and fighting for justice. The assassination of MLK. The assassination of RFK. Bad shit, to be blunt, went down, and Lester never lets you forget this. He paints the decade in alien, almost nightmarish tones, the "free love" and subculture of the times coming off as jarring and discombobulating, with images of the Vietnam War constantly playing in the background. I love how Lester’ll cut to Janis Joplin or the Grateful Dead performing, and we don’t even get to hear their music; we hear static or warped electronica, all while framing the musicians in grotesque, fish-eye close-ups. The ’60s was a time built on contradictions, and no film captures that feeling better.
Boy, Peter Jackson really let himself go after New Line fired him.
It’s another measure of this film’s greatness that it stands as one of the great love stories of all time, with George C. Scott and Julie Christie (as Archie and Petulia, respectively) delivering two of their best performances. Scott’s work here is a far cry from his more celebrated and more bombastic performances in Patton and Dr. Strangelove; he’s subdued, restrained, and often remarkably tender. But inside, he’s a lost man, out-of-touch with his family, with the world around him, searching for a connection. And when he finds that connection with Petulia, it plays out in as unsentimental and tough a fashion as I’ve ever seen, thanks to Scott’s grounded work. And Julie Christie is a revelation. She’s not the cynical madam of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or the confident sex-bomb of Heaven Can Wait, but rather she’s achingly fragile and sad, and even more lost than Archie. We see Petulia’s world self-destruct over the course of the film as she’s tormented by an unloving family and a brutish, savage husband (chillingly played by Richard Chamberlain. I tell you; never did I think that Dr. Kildare could be so frightening. Wait. Strike that), and the kooky, carefree façade she puts up only makes her destruction more terrible. In many ways, Petulia herself is responsible for pushing Archie away and denying her a chance at happiness. This behavior risks grating on the audience, but much like Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener, Christie imbues Petulia with such depth that you can’t help but sympathize with her. She’s luminous.
This scene will break your heart. No bullshit.
All that, and it’s as audacious and experimental and thrilling a film on an artistic level as I’ve ever seen. Lester could have told Petulia’s story straightforwardly, and it would probably not have had the same impact. Working with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (whose own Don’t Look Now has both Christie and many of the same stylistic touches. And Donald Sutherland’s penis), Lester flashes forwards and backwards, using jagged, puzzle-box-like editing to a) represent the confusion that his leads feel and to b) increase suspense by forcing us to piece together the events on-screen. That’s form meeting content, motherfuckers! Plus, the elliptical editing and Roeg’s jumpy, handheld camerawork give the film a frighteningly modern feel, a clear forerunner to the works of Alfonso Cuaron and Steven Soderbergh (I’m looking at you, The Limey).
This is a great, truly adult film. It’s challenging and often frustrating, but those who stick with it are well-rewarded. I know I’ll never forget it.
I’m of two minds about the transfer and sound. On one hand, while both are quite passable, it’s clear Warner Bros. didn’t do anything earth-shattering in terms of remastering the film; there’s a good bit of grain in some scenes, and the mono sound track isn’t perfect. On the other hand, I guess it’s foolish to expect a film as forgotten as this one to be sporting a fucking Wizard of Oz-level restoration job, and some of the visual and aural distortion may be intentional on Lester’s part. The DVD keep-case reproduces the original poster, which hints at the puzzle-like structure of the film while selling it as a far sweeter and more conventional film (i.e., a love triangle between Christie, Chamberlain, and Scott) than it really is. I fucking hate marketing people sometimes.
Special features, are, unfortunately, a bit slim. The vintage featurette is total EPK bullshit, again downplaying the depth of the film while playing up how “hip” and “new” it is so the young people will want to see it. Pandering at its finest, a trait that the theatrical trailer shares. Still, the featurette provides the only glimpse of Richard Lester you’ll see on this disc. The new featurette, The Uncommon Making of Petulia, is okay, with some nice recollections from Chamberlain and producer Raymond Wagner, but it’s too short (about fifteen minutes), and it’s missing participation from Christie, Scott, or Lester. Granted, the last two are dead, but how is that my problem (Note: Richard Lester is very much alive. My bad. This is why fact-checking is a good thing)? I wanted more about the film, like how it was received at the time or who famous it influenced, and I didn’t get that.
You know, I don’t wanna sound like a queer or nothin’, but I think Richard Chamberlain’s one attractive older man.
The movie is one of the greatest I’ve seen; it easily warrants a 10 out of 10. But the disc…not so much. The lackluster transfer and sound, as well as skimpy special features, hurt the overall score of the disc, knocking it down to a: