Most films exist only while they play. Command your attention with light and noise and sometimes color. If it's engaging enough, you may forget where and even who you are for a few hours. They may be good or even great films, but after you leave the theater or turn off the television (or, God forbid, your smartphone), the film quickly evaporates as you attend to the neccesities of daily living. Director Richard Lester's PETULIA from 1968 is not most films.
Petulia is an unhappy girl and quite willing to initiate an affair with distinguished physician, recently divorced Archie Bollen (George C. Scott). They are glimpsed during the opening scenes at a most unusual charity ball, "Shake For Highway Safety". In a curious bit of dark humor, a brand new convertable is showcased, rotating 360 degrees on a pedestal.
Petulia is married to David, a handsome architect (Richard Chamberlin) who fails to enthrall her. In the great tradition of 1960s free spirited kooks (see also: Goldie Hawn in BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE and THERE'S A GIRL IN MY SOUP and Tuesday Weld in LORD LOVE A DUCK and PRETTY POISON), Petulia announces to Dr. Bollen that she will have an assignation with him, right now. He seems ambivalent, but nonetheless accompanies her to a hotel room. She talks a lot; he is bemused. After a few minutes, he leaves. She follows.
After a few more unusual encounters, Bollen more or less agrees to a fling. He has other girlfriends - one of them even meets Petulia. When quizzed about the affair, Bollen answers that he wants to "feel something". Perhaps he is the Tyler Durden of the Summer of Love, without the broken ribs. I also thought of Ben Gazzara's character in HAPPINESS, who felt nothing after years of marriage. So does Bollen. We eventually also meet Polo, Snollen's ex-wife (Shirley Knight) who one night shows up to Snollen's hip new bachelor pad and in one dynamite scene seems to play out the gamut of their marriage. It's like SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, but more concise.
The photography of PETULIA commands your attention from frame one. Future director of his own disturbingly quirky films (BAD TIMING certainly owes a bit to this movie), Nicolas Roeg elucidates the shiny textures of these upper class San Francisco characters' possessions, things like floor to ceiling windows and yachts and kitchens of distinction. As if these things can somehow assauge the deep discontent they all harbor. For Petulia, maybe a way to heal both psychological and physical wounds (David nearly beats her to death, her body found bloodied in Snollen's apartment). David himself, more than once admired by his wife for his physical attractiveness, may be one of those mere acquisitions.
Julie Christie is perfect in the title role. Just perfect. She captures eccentricity and heart without overdoing either. Scott is cool and detached, though still able to break down at times to reveal his own unfrozen core. Chamberlin does his best work as a good looking package not with nothing inside, but rather something very rotten. The casting for PETULIA is without fault.
Lester again presents a time jumbled narrative as he did in HOW I WON THE WAR and zig zag editing as in the Beatles' HARD DAYS' NIGHT. These elements are routine to 21st century audiences but were still novel in the 1960s. They also render PETULIA a work of art, a challenging collage that overloads your senses while it unspools but also saturates your (at least my) thoughts long after. As I ponder it, I conclude many things. This film is an indictment of a society that is becoming numbed with consumerism and amorality. Of easy exits and a pursuit of short term hedonism as a response to the frustrating road that is Adulthood. These characters are chronological adults but still spoiled children. They gave up easily, especially the men.
Petulia acts out too, but there is still a soul in there. She tries to unofficially adopt a homeless Mexican boy. She seeks an honest relationship with Snollen. She is thwarted on both counts. No hope? The last shot does at least offer some glimmer of (debatable) hope. A chance to eschew self-centeredness. The camera fades out before we know for sure.....