Thursday, September 6, 2007


A film with a great blur at its center, the position occupied by its inscrutable title character, Richard Lester's Petulia, a picture otherwise notable for its sure conception of place (in this case late '60s San Fransisco), ultimately fails on Julie Christie's misguided characterization. Of course, one might argue that the exposition of her "whimsical" (always a dicey characteristic for a screen figure) free-wheeling socialite is not important in itself, that Petulia matters only for the effect she produces on the film's main character, the far more cohesively defined Archie Bollen (George C. Scott), a straight-laced soon-to-be divorcé who becomes her occasional lover and seems to benefit greatly from the connection. But, despite the disappearance of Christie's character for large stretches of screen time, she is too central to the film to allow us to overlook her incoherent characterization.

Which is a shame since the rest of the film succeeds quite conclusively. The picture's first sequence establishes the antic, satirical tone that defines the work's treatment of its specific milieu, the fringes of the '60s counterculture, as well as the lightning-fast cutting that stands as the most salient feature of the picture's visual aesthetic. The film's first images are marked by quick alternations between two seemingly unrelated scenes. As guests mingle in a lavish ballroom, a series of elderly ladies in wheel chairs and neck braces incongruously dressed in evening wear are photographed and led up a freight elevator. The cuts between the two sequences become less frequent until, finally, the fragments merge together. The women are wheeled into the ballroom and we learn that the gala is a benefit for traffic safety and the elderly women are (or are posing as) traffic victims. By isolating and then gradually integrating the two disparate images, Lester emphasizes the absurdity of the event by stressing the seeming incompatibility of its constituent visual elements before forcefully mashing them together. Milking the setting for all its satirical potential, the director then introduces a raffle in which a new car (photographed to emphasize the light reflecting off its shiny hubcaps) is given away as a prize, a decision which seemingly undermines the purpose of the benefit, but offers the organizers a chance to promote the latest in consumer goods.

Cut into this sequence is a series of seemingly unrelated scenes, including an image of a young boy trapped under a car's wheels, an image which offers an ironic commentary on the primary setting (the traffic safety benefit) and is only later assimilated into the film's narrative structure. In fact, the film is rife with incongruous visual elements intercut into the primary sequences. The intercut footage often contains flashbacks (the boy under the car), but flashbacks that only assume relevance later in the work when we are given enough information to accurately read their place in the film's overall conception. This deliberate fragmentation of the narrative may occasionally prove off-putting, but it mirrors the confusion of the film's characters and provides an apt aesthetic correlative to the splintered society that forms the picture's subject. The film also employs this free-associative editing to introduce a distinct strain of social commentary into the work's organizational conception. For example, in one scene Archie and his family attend a roller-derby, one of the numerous distinctive cultural phenomena that the film catalogues. Although offered as a wholesome entertainment, the event is notable for its undercurrent of violence, a violence that Lester wishes to suggest is endemic to the whole of society. To this end, he employs an Eisensteinian montage, intercutting a shot of Petulia's bloodied face (she has just been badly beaten, presumably by her husband) with the roller-derby action, suggesting an essential link between the violence being sold as family entertainment and the domestic violence visited on Petulia.

The occasional incoherence brought about by all this (at times overwhelming) intercutting, however, is nothing compared to that of Petulia herself. Looking unnaturally tan, Christie seems perpetually unsure of which direction to take her performance. Petulia is hardly the first misguided screen characterization to have an effect on the film's leading men out of all proportion to her actual merits (c.f. Jeanne Moreau's equally flighty Catherine in Jules et Jim), but she is probably the most off-puttingly "quirky". Picking up Archie at the highway safety benefit in front of her husband, she leads him to a nearby motel, prodding him with the suggestion that they are about to become lovers. When he asks her if they really are about to, she says, "no", quickly putting an end to their initial tryst. "Ah, these young swinging marrieds," laments Archie, suggesting that Petulia is representative of a new generation of quixotic, but ultimately too variable, women, different from his pretty, but dull ex-wife who he left not because of any marital difficulties, but simply because he got bored. Petulia may not be boring, but Lester and Christie define her character with such capriciousness that she threatens to disappear altogether. There is simply nothing to hold her together. When we next see her she shows up at Archie's house late at night carrying a tuba and complaining of a broken rib. Later, she allows a young boy to accompany her back from Mexico. She has a greenhouse installed in Archie's apartment while he's at work. In short, she is defined strictly by her ludicrous whims, a definition which prevents her from having any real existence, even as a caricature. Granted, her characterization can hardly be expected to assume a sense of reality that transcends her mere presence on the screen (a feat almost never achieved in film), but a minimal amount of existence within that cinematic context should at least be required for a figure so central to the film's overall conception.

In Petulia, Richard Lester skillfully presents a kaleidoscopic portrait of late '60s San Fransisco, a portrait that takes in psychedelic concerts (featuring Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead), automated love motels, tract housing and wealthy conservatives. Lester also captures the fragmentation of the culture by filtering his material through a series of quick cuts that displace the film's temporal grounding and disorient the viewer. But he continually undercuts his achievement by placing Petulia at the film's center. For a character who looms so large over the proceedings and is supposedly representative of the coutercultural world (or at least its free-spirited mentality), it is not enough to define her through a series of lunatic actions. She may be slippery, but she must exist. Unfortunately, Petulia is wispy to the point of evaporation and this evanescence makes a mockery of Archie's transformation and finally undermines Lester's project.

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