Richard Lester’s Petulia is one of those films that leave you uncertain about your reactions. Famous for its fragmented editing style, it’s yet another example of Mod ’60s zaniness, but with the major difference that the stylistic excess is in the service of a serious character study. Dr. Archie Bollen (George C. Scott) is undergoing a mid-life crisis when he meets kooky, gamine Petulia Danner (Julie Christie) who doesn’t seem to have much to do but irritate other people. While the film is never very funny, it feels as if it wants to be, with imposed moments of satire that always fall just wide of the mark. At the same time, however, there is too much blood and social commentary for it to be taken lightly.
For beneath the zaniness, Petulia is the victim of a vicious beating by her husband (Richard Chamberlain), so that her motives for involvement with Archie are uncertain. It is never clear whether she really cares for him or if she is just amusing herself by torturing him emotionally. The uncertainties are heightened by the non-linear story-telling. Petulia seems to have more flashbacks, flashes forward, fantasies, cutaways to gratuitous details and atmospheric filler than the rest of ’60s cinema put together. (The shot above, for example, lasts barely a second when it appears.) Yet when the film settles down, it’s not clear all that filigree adds up to much.
Which is not to say that the movie has nothing to offer. George C. Scott has rarely been better. He brings a quiet, sensitive reserve to his performance, putting us inside the head of a confused, but decent, ordinary character, a man who longs to “feel something” but who has no idea how to do so. (To the movie’s credit, it does not imply his affair with Petulia categorically changes him. At most he might be changed.) Scott’s famous “cookie scene” with his ex-wife (Shirley Knight) is one of the finest bits of screen acting in American film. The passing of time has done nothing to diminish the scene’s edgy accuracy, its sharp, unsentimental, fully lived depiction of two people who no longer love each other, but who also care too much to be able to separate cleanly.
Ironically, it is the actors, not the flashy technique, that hold the movie together. Christie is not in Scott’s class, but at her best, she’s a gorgeous, stellar presence. She is bearable (just) in a part that could easily have brought out the worst in her, and many in the cast are outstanding. The result is not a film that is easy to dismiss, even with its dated mannerisms and attitudes. It is also, however, not easy to like. It is almost as if in the effort to create something daring, the filmmakers miss what they have really achieved.