Combustible Celluloid
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With: Julie Christie, George C. Scott, Richard Chamberlain, Arthur Hill, Shirley Knight, Joseph Cotten, Pippa Scott, Kathleen Widdoes, Roger Bowen
Written by: Lawrence B. Marcus, based on a novel by John Haase
Directed by: Richard Lester
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 105
Date: 06/10/1968

Petulia (1968)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Flower Sour

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Movies changed fast in the 1960s. Heck, everything was changing fast. Filmmakers struggled to keep up with political, cultural and artistic ideas that could turn on a dime or curdle faster than left-out milk.

Some just accepted it and went with an all-or-nothing kind of looseness. This sentiment is evident in four new DVDs recently released by Warner Home Video: Irvin Kershner's A Fine Madness (1966), Hy Averback's I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), Tony Richardson's The Loved One (1965) and James Goldstone's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1971).

Four decades on, these films have aged badly, dried up and blown away like the stomped-on grass from some long-ago free peace-n-love outdoor poetry reading.

But the fifth film in the new Warners series, Richard Lester's Petulia (1968), lives on with its vague curiosity and a genuine emotional sting.

For starters, Petulia has its own unique shape, similar to John Boorman's Point Blank from the previous year, in that its protagonists occupy the clean, unblemished center of a trippy, unstable, swirling background.

George C. Scott stars as Archie Bollen, an almost-divorced San Francisco doctor who meets the married Petulia (Julie Christie) at a party.

Petulia is of the 1960s, but also outside them. She's beautiful and kooky, oscillating between affection and distance, and maddeningly alluring. Wounded and stoic, Archie is a hard target; he sometimes manages to resist her, but not always.

The San Francisco playing around them at all times is partially psychedelic; the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Co. (featuring Janis Joplin) appear, playing a couple of popular tunes.

Yet the city is also on the verge of something else, a sinister kind of order. It's as if Lester -- who had already struck gold with hipster films like A Hard Day's Night (1964), The Knack... and How to Get It (1965) and Help! (1965) -- discovered that the 1960s essence could only last so long before it burned out and gave way to something more controlled and empty.

Joseph Cotten co-stars in a strong performance as Petulia's father, a staid symbol of the rigid past, angry that this roiling present doesn't match up to his standards.

And thus with a backdrop as alive and layered as this, the characters can't help but come alive within it. There's no real plot; Archie takes his kids out for a weekend, Petulia unwittingly takes home a Mexican orphan. These incidents happen outside of time, and the two protagonists react to them one at a time.

The climactic incident, and the thing that finally shakes the story loose from its repeating, meandering path is one of violence as Petulia is cruelly and viciously beaten, presumably by her husband (Richard Chamberlain).

All of this may sound dreary and pointless, but the film's greatness lies in its power to layer these things into the rhythms of life. For every depressing bit there's an equally joyous or passionate bit to make up for it. Each happens within its own moment, just like life. When we're sad, we tend not to remember our happiness, and vice-versa.

Petulia is a truly unique film -- even more so given the rest of Lester's juvenile output -- and one that deserves revisiting from time to time. Warner Home Video's new DVD comes in a beautifully mastered new transfer with a making-of featurette, a new featurette, a trailer and optional subtitles.

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