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Petulia [Import USA Zone 1]
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Set during the swinging sixties in San Francisco, Richard Lester's landmark romantic drama tells of the charmingly kooky socialite Petulia (Julie Christie), who has been recently married to David (Richard Chamberlain). Unhappy with her marriage, she embarks on a love affair with a melancholy recently-divorced doctor (George C. Scott) as they try to make sense of their dispassionate lives.
Through Nicolas Roeg's cinematography, the non-linear, fragmented love story loops back and forth and the dark reality emerges from the idyllic façade of sixties opulence. As the story of Petulia's abuse at the hands of her husband unfolds, the lovers try to find the courage to change the course of their lives in the face of their respective demons.
'It's a very real film about two people trying to get through to each other' - director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night).DVD Extras
- Featurette The Uncommon Making of Petulia
- Theatrical Trailer
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This region-2 disc (released in 2008 and showing the Warner logo), however, contains a mediocre, lack-lustre, not anamorphically-enhanced transfer of the film. This just as a warning to those who think they can make a bargain here: On DVD, stick to the Warner region-1 edition of this film.
To make sure, the ASIN code of the offending DVD: B0053CAF0U
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Now finally released DVD, Petulia is just as bizarre, frustrating - and even as irritating - as it was thirty years ago, but the film is worth revisiting, mainly for performances by Christie, Scott and Chamberlain and also for the colourful images of San Francisco during the late 1960s. Directed by Richard Lester, with Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer - who gives the film an artier look than it really deserves - Petulia skewers time like a knife.
The film utilizes fast forward and backward cuts, which at the time seemed avant-garde and unconventional, but today it comes across as sort of exasperating. It begins when Petulia, a rich, married, kooky waif, played by Julie Christie, propositions Archie, a tired divorced surgeon, played by George C. Scott, at a San Francisco charity ball. She tells him that she has a husband, but that she desperately wants to have an affair with a married man.
Obviously a little odd, Petulia manages to capture Archie's heart and arrives with a tuba and bruises at Scott's apartment quite early one morning. He's a little hesitant to get involved with her as he still has feelings for his wife Polo (Shirley Knight). Archie's friends, Barney and Wilma (Arthur Hill and Kathleen Widdoes), understanding nothing, show him films of himself and his former wife, in hopes of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, Petulia's marriage to her husband David (Richard Chamberlain) is on the skids and when he finds out about her affair with Archie he brutally abuses her. Her father-in-law (Joseph Cotten) visits her bedside while Polo parades her new lover in front of Archie. He in turn tries to have a relationship with his sons and everything plays out in such a fractured, arty and shattered way that it's as though someone had intentionally devastated a perfectly fashioned and crafted film.
Although these were turbulent times in America, the film only hints at the social change that was starting to take place. Both Petulia and Archie are quite straight, upper-middle class people; no way do they affiliate themselves with the hippy, counter-culture people, the sexual freedom advocates, and rock music fans, and druggies. But change is also affecting them and although they are as different as night and day, they somehow need each other.
Petulia is certainly endemic of the 60's; she's beautiful and playful, oscillating between affection and distance, and exasperatingly glamorous. The film almost plays out in a series of vignettes, without a definitive plot: Archie takes his kids out for a weekend; Petulia unwittingly takes home a Mexican orphan. We constantly see these incidents in brief glimpses, as though Lester is determined to skewer reality, and make us take note of how these two characters are conflicted and vulnerable.
Petulia works pretty well as an exercise in how two neurotic people can be trapped by their own fate or by indecision. Don't expect a happy and fulfilled ending as by the film's conclusion, the characters face the same problems - Petulia is still trapped in a marriage to the jealous David and he unsure of his wife's commitment. Archie is still conflicted and cannot settle, and Petulia is unable to know if she can love anybody other than the poor and vulnerable Archie. Mike Leonard August 06.
"Petulia" tells the story of two very different people whose lives irrevocably intersect in a vague search for place and self in the 1960s. Lester claims to have shaped "Petulia"'s characters as symbols of 1960s America, and yet rarely has the cinema offered such complex and three-dimensional characters. The title character in particular, played by Julie Christie, is a young "kook" recently married into comfortable wealth, and whose behavior is not only unpredicatable, but erratic to the point of schizophrenia. George C. Scott's Archie is a rather serious doctor in the midst of a divorce (he terminated his marriage, he says, because he'd tired of being "a handsome couple") and making a rather forced effort to enjoy new bachelorhood. In the opening scene, Petulia tells Archie, "I've been married six months and I've never had an affair." After much discussion, but no kissing, Archie and Petulia decide, almost out of resignation, to have an affair. What these characters take from each other is a very complicated thing, which I can only describe as brief protection from what seems inevitable loneliness. Certainly they're an interesting pair. Über-critic Pauline Kael describes Julie Christie's portrayal of Petulia as "lewd and anxious, expressive and empty, brilliantly faceted but with something central missing, almost as if there's no woman inside." I couldn't say it better myself. George C. Scott's Archie is a brilliantly understated masculine foil to this Petulia. Richard Combs wrote of him in Film Comment as representative of a type "reduced to inertia, impotence, terminal ambivalence by the fact that they see too clearly and feel too keenly the compromises that society demands."
Kael is quite hard on this film. I'd characterize most of her criticisms of "Petulia" as reactionary, but because she's Pauline Kael, they're worth hearing out. Kael writes of "Petulia" as a "come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-America-party." Though certainly there's a heavy dose of 60s existential angst, I'd say one of the most striking things about "Petulia" is its characters' refusal to fit neatly *as characters,* much less as archetypes, or even to operate at the service of the narrative (as you'd expect of people who are, frankly, figments of that narrative). This works brilliantly with the film's themes of disillusionment and confused identity in a time of both personal and cultural upheaval. "Petulia" was filmed in San Francisco at the tail end of the Summer of Love and released in the wake of youth movements that exploded throughout the west in `68. Rather than showcasing the socio-historical import of the era, Lester soaks up all the disillusionment of a major letdown. (Kael calls "Petulia" Lester's "hate letter to America.") In "Petulia," free-spiritedness reveals itself as irresponsibility, passion gives way to rage, and self-preservation is confused for selfishness. Consequences loom large over Archie and Petulia.
Antony Gibbs' editing is key here. Flashes backward and forward in time and memory weave throughout "Petulia." Brief ellipses of violence, guilt, and regret interrupt and even haunt the narrative like irrepressible thoughts and compulsive memories. Again, Archie and Petulia cannot confrom to the narrative - their very thoughts disrupt it. Gibbs' editing almost dictates the film's style more than Lester's direction does. Its also one of the things Kael most strongly attacked. "The images of `Petulia' don't make valid connections, they're joined together for shock and excitement," she said. The rant goes on, saying Gibbs' editing was "the most insanely obvious method of cutting film ever devised; keep the audience jumping with cuts, juxtapose startling images, anything for effectiveness." On paper, this is a valid criticism of fractured, cubist editing. But in the particular case of this film I think the editing's value skyrockets as a means of getting deep inside our two main characters.
But moving on, "Petulia" is above all a film about people *within a time and place.* "Petulia" is cluttered with electric razors, remote-controlled fireplaces, elevators, and other gadgets of better living. Archie in particular is given real depth by his consistent placement in mininal steel-and-glass interiors. (Nicolas Roeg's photography is very much in line with what he did once he began directing.) Archie's apartment is both grand and modern with high ceilings and walls that glow with white sleekness. Occasional pieces of abstract art decorate the space, pieces one can imagine Archie hand-picking with conviction but little interest. Archie's presence sits somewhere between strong, understated strength and classical refinement. Archie's time with Petulia is clearly the most significant of his forays into bachelorhood and into the zeitgeist of the day. Richard Combs correctly notes that Petulia becomes "the measure by which everything else falls short." It's difficult to speak on how well the two personalities get along, except perhaps to say that each is certainly changed for its time with the other. There is true and painful awkwardness in every interaction in "Petulia," due largely to the obligations attached to each character's role in each relationship. The reality of each character's unique responsibilities to each other character in the film becomes downright oppressive - fascinating in the context of what was to be remembered as the height of glorious irresponsibility. Petulia, in part a representation of the carefree lifestyle associated with San Francisco in 1968, is no more free of these roles and their responsibilities than Archie is. The great accomplishment of Petulia and Archie's relationship is its attempt to transcend these roles. When the two decide at the film's opening to have an affair, it seems as though they've gravitated to one another partly for the total lack of context for their relationship. As such a pair, they could be, and certainly try to be, heroes of a modern landscape that separately, and ultimately, they are confined by.
Lacking in the other comments ( printed here) is the central theme, as I saw it.
The conflict of a disaffected professional whose real life was in the operating room. He walks away from a seemingly "perfect" marriage for reasons even he cannot understand. He is looking for something at a personal level which he cannot define. His encounter with Petulia is pure serendipity. She, for reasons of her own is also searching for meaning. They touch, briefly, and move on. The affect of their relationship on those around them provides the counterpoint to this truly heartbreaking drama.
The wild 6os in San Fransco provides a very suitable backdrop for the main theme.
The final scenes in the labor and delivery rooms are pure genius.
When she says "Archie" it tells it all.