Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Richard Lester's Petulia feels like a very typical late 60s film. It belongs to the bunch of films of the initial years of what came to be known as the "new hollywood" and which later flourished in the early seventies. These films were inspired by the modernistic European art films, specially the new wave. These films emphasised form and style over content, eschewed simple psychological portraits with straightforward and cliched character motivations. They also rejected the conventional, linear, cause-and-effect narrative in favour of discontiuity both in time and in place, something that more than anything else separated these from the classical hollywood cinema.

Although it appears very confounding and complex at the beginning, Petulia actually tells a rather simple story of a love triangle involving the eponymous character (played by Julie Christie at her stylish best) who is living in an abusive marriage and who starts an affair out of whim with a doctor who is in the process of divorcing his wife. The story is told in a very non-linear way with many flashbacks and flash forwards. It is actually quite confusing at the beginning, because some cuts show the events prior to their meeting and others show the violent events which are yet to come but slowly everything starts to fall into place. The use of flashbacks is quite common in classical narrative cinema but the flashback here is nothing like in Casablanca for example. They are not meant to solve a narrative problem but rather to capture a tone and mood of disorientation and also jolt the viewer into awareness of the formal aspects of the storytelling.

Petulia is also modernistic in one other way. Rather than probing into the psychological depth of the lead characters, it is more interested in capturing the feel of the city of San Francisco, specially the fabled San Francisco of 1968. Everything in the city seems colour coded - buses, road signs, the clothes people wear on the streets, the facades of the buildings. It is all very colourful but it is also very inhuman, artificial and alienating. Even the hospital seems to be colour coded! In fact in one of the scenes when a patient asks why the TV set is not working, she is told that it is just a facade which is there only to make her want the "real" thing. The film also makes it clear in this way that it is this artificiality that is creating the rifts in interpersonal relationships though it doesn't belabour this theme very much. A few scenes actually reminded me of Antonioni, in his subjects and themes if not in his visual style. There are also some trippy montage sequences involving strange visual designs and also a sequence with Grateful Dead again placing the film into a very specific period - that of sixties counterculture.

All the three leads are very good and there is a bravura cameo by the always reliable Joseph Cotten as well, but the film finally belongs to the director and his team of technicians. Julie Christie always looked very stylish but she is even more so in this film. Fashion buffs will have a specially good time watching all those clothes she gets to wear in this film. Nicolas Roeg was the DP of the film and he did an extraordinary job with everything - the colour, texture, lighting, dissolves everything is just perfect and extremely evocative. It also appears that he probably stole his flashback, flashforward, jump cut style that became his trademark in his later films as a director from this film.

An article on the senses of cinema website about the film.


puccinio said...

''Petulia'' was one of the most mature films of it's time. A true-blooded film for adults which is also a rich examination of the
60s revealing that class barriers and social climbing still exist.

George C. Scott and Julie Christie are among my favourite film couples, today it's inconcievable that either actors or similar actors would be cast but that was the 60's.

''Petulia's'' editing style is sepcificially inspired by one film, Alain Resnais' ''Muriel ou le Temps d'un Retour'', the film he made after ''Marienbad''. That film was set in Boulogne-du-Mer, a small French town and the film set in the early 60's is both a meditation on love, time, memory and about France's history in the Second World War and in Algeria. ''Petulia'' is more flamboyant than that film but it follows the same part anthropological method of that film.

Resnais' editing style is one of the most complex in film history. Resnais was famously called by Godard, "the greatest editor after Eisenstein."

Julie Christie's work in ''Petulia'' was one of her best roles. She was at her peak in the 60's and 70's. Another film worth checking out is Truffaut's ''Fahrenheit 451''(fairly underrated) which not only stars her but is also shot by Nicholas Roeg. She's one of the most beautiful and most talented actresses of all time.

I actually admire ''Petulia'' more than I like it. It's something that impresses me for it's style and it's performances but it doesn't really move me. Maybe I need to see it again. Richard Lester was a very talented director whose films include ''The Knack'', ''The Bed-Sitting Room''(a really scary doomsday satire made for BBC!!!), ''Cuba'' and his ''The Three/Four Musketeers'' diptych. ''A Hard Day's Night'' is not bad though a lot depends on what you think of the Beatles.

Side-Trivia: Robert Altman, pre-greatness was originally supposed to direct this film. He loved the end result very much and doesn't regret missing out one bit.

Alok said...

I had mostly similar reaction too (admired but not moved by it generally) but that is true for all films which emphasise style and formalism. It is applicable more or less to modernistic arts in other media too. Reading Dickens is very different from reading Woolf for example. A true achievement however would be something that combines the two reactions - detached reflection about formal aspects of the film and more intimate emotional and subjectie involvment in the story and way both enrich each other. I think Dreyer's films are great examples of that and so are many more in fact - Ozu, Bresson, lot of Fassbinder and others too.

There is another factor at work because the film is about, among other things, the "loss of feeling"..as the George C. Scott character says quite a few times in the film too. It also comes out in the way Lester and Roeg shot San Franciso as a colourful but an inert and inhuman place. So the coldness is I believe an intentional effect.

I will check out Muriel soon. His Hiroshima Mon Amour also uses some amazing non-linear editing techniques and I think the voice-over in the film must be one of my all-time favourites. I haven't seen it in such a long time though...

I agree about Julie Christie. She has a great personality and a screen presence. I need to see more of her films of that period, specially The Go-Between.

puccinio said...

Julie Christie appeared in many fascinating films. ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' is probably her quintessential role(opposite then beau Warren Beatty). Actually her films made with Warren Beatty are well worth starting out. Unlike most film couples, their relationships usually end unhappily on-screen. ''The Go-Between'' is an excellent film and she's great in that but...see for yourself and find out. The film doesn't go as far as it should have gone and her role is underwritten. It's one of those films that falters by taking the POV of a very uninteresting character and rooting the film around him. It works in literature but in film...

Then ''Dr. Zhivago'' has a bad rep these days. But it's still effortlessly watchable and she's too lovely for words in that. I also recommend her films with John Schlesinger, ''Billy Liar'' and ''Darling''(though hampered by a preachy guilty-liberal screenplay).

It's not the coldness of the screenplay which bothers me. I love Antonioni and his films are cold. Resnais is not the most warm of film-makers either and ''Muriel'' isn't a warm film at all. It's just that overall it didn't connect to me. Many films do that to you. You like them but you don't react to them personally.

Alok said...

"Many films do that to you. You like them but you don't react to them personally."

Yes true. for me Stanley Kubrick falls in that criteria (except for The Killing and parts of Paths of Glory)

Julie Christie was also in "Shampoo". Not in the same leage as Mrs Miller but she is quite good in it too. I will check out those two John Schlesinger's films. She won an Oscar for Darling too.