Tuesday, February 12, 2008
When John Barry’s haunting theme starts up at the beginning of Richard Lester’s 1968 PETULIA, the message it seems to get across is very clear: No matter what happens from this point on, you will get hurt. On the surface, PETULIA could be looked at as a time capsule piece, a vision of San Francisco at the time of Haight-Ashbury made by people lucky enough to be there at the time. But in a greater sense PETULIA is about two very different people who stumble across each other at a point in their lives when they are feeling powerless about everything going on around them. The broad strokes of that idea have changed in the world. But the specifics, the pain of not being able to achieve those things that we can’t quite define to ourselves, remain the same. The tagline on the poster was “An uncommon movie” which seems very accurate. Other movies may attempt similar approaches, but few others achieve what this one does emotionally.
Laid out in an intentionally fractured narrative (fittingly, the poster art used on the DVD is made up of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle) PETULIA tells the story of Archie Bollen (George C. Scott) a newly-divorced physician in San Francisco who meets the married Petulia Danner (Julie Christie) one night at a “Shake for Highway Safety” benefit, where society types mingle with presumed accident victims in formal wear as Janis Joplin sings in the background. Latching onto him and insisting that they will have an affair, Petulia is obviously trying to force a meet-cute to happen and makes her way into his life. Archie has recently left his wife, for reasons that even he can’t quite put into words. Petulia has been married for six months to an empty shirt with a cruel streak (Richard Chamberlain) and does everything she can to convince Archie that she is the screwball kook that she says she is, from stealing a tuba for him to turning up with the tuba’s rightful owner insisting it be returned (“All this I LOVE LUCY jazz, it’s only cute for a while,” he tells her) As she makes her way further into his life, not even making it clear if she wants to have an affair with him or not, she begins to enter his thoughts more and more, just as it becomes clear that she is hiding the truth about her marriage. As this proceeds we are treated to various flashbacks, much of them centered around a specific event in that marriage, but on first viewing it’s tough to tell if indeed they are all flashbacks and how they might fit together. Around them is the city of San Francisco in 1968, a world being transformed by the new forms of automation along with hippies everywhere as the old guard stands by. Scott’s character is as baffled as anyone, but he is more troubled by what’s going on in his own head, by his desire to “feel something”.
It’s very much an impenetrable film, partly due to how contradictory it is. You could give somebody a one-line summary, have it include the phrase ‘kooky girl’ and it sounds like the comedy its title character obviously wants to be the heroine of, but it most definitely is not. It’s filled with details such as a bizarre drive-thru hotel and nuns riding in sports cars which indicate the movie could be taken as satire but it isn’t that either. These odd elements seem to be part of how Richard Lester was looking at the world around him while making the film, such as how news reports on Vietnam can be spotted on televisions at various point, yet no one ever mentions it. It’s as if he’s feeling not anger towards the way the world is changing, but a form of despair and it’s somehow related to how the characters seem unable to communicate with each other. That’s almost how I feel about the movie. It’s one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen but I can’t even really say why.
There’s not a character here which could be explained in just a few lines. Archie’s wife (Shirley Knight) is presented as a reasonable, attractive woman understandably confused and hurt by what her husband as done. Chamberlain was cast, he says, because he reminded Lester of “an empty Coke bottle—beautiful on the outside, empty on the inside.” There are slight indications of what could really be going on with the character—Latent homosexual? Pedophile?—but the movie never pins it down exactly. Archie himself is enough of an individual to take his kids to places that his ex-wife’s new man hasn’t thought of (after being told that a trip to Alcatraz will be their second in two weeks) but even he isn’t enough to pin down Petulia. Pinning down women like Petulia is one of the toughest things to accomplish on the planet. On occasion the scales in the tone Lester is going for tip a little too far past that despair into anger—one scene in particular involving medics carrying an injured character through an apartment complex on a stretcher seems like a dark version of similar ideas in THE KNACK and it almost seems too much. But for the most part the modulated tone of melancholy seeps its way through, nailing something about the futility of trying to connect with someone like few other films ever have.
Among the remarkable performances throughout, Christie is a delightfully infectious lifeforce that you could easily imagine falling for her even during her most maddening behavior. And yet, she seems so heartbreakingly sad that you desperately want her to be rescued, even though you’re there’s nothing that can be done for that to happen. Scott is remarkable, delivering possibly the best, most purely human work I’ve ever seen from him. This seems all the more remarkable considering he reportedly didn’t really understand what Lester was doing during production but it’s possibly he didn’t have to. He just needed to find the emotional truth of his character and he nails it. Chamberlain and Joseph Cotten as father and son play two of the most viciously normal bastards of all film history, with it becoming very clear how the abuse they doll out get passed down from one to the other. Chamberlain shows those horrifying hints behind his good-looking façade, while Cotton’s character very clearly left all decency behind long ago. To counterbalance that, it’s the women of the cast who are allowed some of the most emotionally shattering moments of the film, particularly the remarkable Shirley Knight as Scott’s ex-wife and, in a smaller role, Kathleen Widdoes as the wife of Archie’s best friend, who seems fully in denial about the divorce but in private admits her greatest secret to Archie. It’s a strikingly real performance by an actress I’m really not familiar with, even in tiny scenes where she does very little. The large cast features a number of familiar faces in early uncredited bits, most notably Austin Pendleton, Rene Auberjonois and Howard Hesseman. Janis Joplin can be seen performing in the opening sequence with Big Brother & The Holding Company. It’s such a fleeting moment that you almost wonder if you really spotted her. That seems strangely fitting in the environment of this movie.
I find myself returning to PETULIA repeatedly not just to sort out its kaleidoscopic narrative, but also to figure out why I respond to it the way I do. Part of it certainly has to do with its portrayal of a time and place that I never got to witness. But most of it must have to do with some of my own experiences, my own memories that to this day continue to flicker through my brain, even if I wish they would stop once and for all. The regrets of the past and the closing of certain chapters in life often remind me how hard it is to let go of certain things. That’s why, to me, the heartbreaking end of PETULIA feels like a door closing, a form of death, a breaking of a connection that feels impossible to recover from. I’d like to believe that moving on from those losses in this life is possible, because if we live long enough, then it’s possible to learn how to leave certain things in the past. The way PETULIA haunts me means that I don’t know if it’s possible but, in truth, thinking of the sight of Julie Christie’s face makes me believe almost anything.