Friday, December 4, 2015
Near the beginning of Richard Lester's 1968 Petulia, George C. Scott pronounces the film's epigraph: "Petulia," he declares, "is a kook." The term "kook" demonstrates that Petulia is an artifact of the "swinging sixties," inflected with the rapid fire, absurdist Goon Show jocularity of Lester's two earlier films with the Fab Four, Help and A Hard Days Night. In one of Truffaut's films made a few years before, a character swears an oath on his mother's life, the director, then, inserting a shot showing the pious old lady dropping dead. The editing in Petulia follows this nouvelle vague model: if a character off-screen is mentioned, Lester will cut to a flashback or flashforward of that person. An image of a bloody broken leg rhymes with shock cut images of Petulia's face, beaten and bloody, after an assault inflicted upon her by her husband. Everything has a hard, bright Pop Art edge and Lester stages some scenes with the comic exuberance that he used in his Beatles' pictures, films that essentially invented the music video form. The actors and plot are secondary to the fast, rat-a-tat-tat editing, montage so quick and discursive, that it makes the dialogue and plot often unintelligible. (Certainly, this style developed for non-actors -- the Beatles -- disrupts and renders almost inconsequential the bravura acting by some of the principals.) In many scenes, Lester's soundtrack layers dialogue, particularly rude or vulgar or insensitive remarks by bystanders -- we hear a cacophony of voices commenting on events that the film has shown us. (The overlapping dialogue is similar to the approach to sound-design in Robert Altman's films.) Julie Christie, preternaturally beautiful in some scenes, plays Petulia, a dizzy, free-spirit encumbered by an unhappy marriage to a spoiled rich boy. George C. Scott is an orthopedic surgeon, underplaying his role, conspicuously. and pursued by Petulia. She has glimpsed the doctor operating on a Mexican waif, a child that Petulia and her husband are surreptitiously supporting because they earlier kidnaped him from his home in Tijuana -- the kidnaping, treating as a blithe lark, is one of Petulia's whimsical pranks: this aspect of the plot was probably meant to be amusing in 1968, but the notion of stealing a child off the streets of Tijuana and, then, transporting him to San Francisco like a stray dog doesn't sit well with our present-day perspective on Anglo-Hispanic relations. Petulia launches a relentless campaign to seduce the stand-offish surgeon, inviting him to have sex with her at a bizarre hotel that seems to be a vast underground parking lot with cheesy boudoirs opening directly into the nasty concrete carpark. They don't have sex, but Petulia, undeterred acquires a tuba, and chases the hapless physician around with that vast brass instrument slung around her shapely body. Ultimately, George C. Scott's character, who seems to be in the midst of a sullen mid-life crisis -- he has both an ex-wife and a girlfriend -- succumbs to Petulia's charms. Her husband, played by Richard Chamberlain against type, is a hysterical bully and he responds to the affair by beating Petulia half to death. Later, her family spirits her away from the hospital where she is being treated by Scott. Petulia's husband has an interfering plutocrat for a father, a character played by Joseph Cotton, a sinister figure, if anything, even more vicious than his son. Chamberlain's family coerces Petulia into a reconciliation with her husband and the couple depart on a long and nightmarish cruise on the family yacht. We see that Petulia is, in effect, held hostage by her husband, a man who is spectacularly pretty but emotionally fragile and prone to sudden, inexplicable bouts of rage. At the end of the film, George C. Scott encounters Petulia in the hospital where she is immensely pregnant. They express regret that their relationship didn't really blossom and we last see her in surgery, with an anesthesia mask being lowered ominously over her beautiful frightened face. The last ten minutes of the picture is very dour, grim, and sad and I recall that it made a great impression on me when I saw the movie on TV in High School -- the ending of the film has something of the flavor of the last twenty minutes of Kubrick's Lolita: the giddy young woman has been destroyed and her sexual charm has vanished into pregnancy. (The film invokes Lolita as well in a supporting role -- Scott's ex-wife has a dull and conventional boyfriend who is played by an actor who adopts the mannerisms of Quilty-Quilty as acted by Peter Sellers in Kubrick's film.) The movie is certainly interesting, cleverly made, and remains emotionally affecting in its final minutes. The aspect of the film that has not aged well is the characterization of Petulia as a whimsical, happy-go-lucky, free spirit -- although Julie Christie is pretty and does her best with the part, it is under-written, and Petulia is a more of a counter-cultural notion than a viable character. The film doesn't stint in its portrayal of male rage -- George C. Scott looks brutish and his nose seems broken into a nasty, curmudgeonly twist; the film emphasizes the contrast between its two leading men, juxtaposing Richard Chamberlain's astonishing, if androgynous, beauty with Scott's hewn-from-granite appearance as an old, surly brawler. At one point, Scott hurls a bag of food at his ex-wife with alarming vehemence and it seems that he is capable of every bit of the violence that Chamberlain's character inflicts on Petulia -- in fact, the notion that men are intrinsically violent and aggressively manipulative underwrites much of the film. The viewer faces a male trio of powerhouse performances (Scott, Chamberlain, and Cotton) vying with the rather ineffectual whimsy displayed by Julie Christie's character -- accordingly, the movie seems weirdly out of balance. When George C. Scott reprimands Petulia by saying: "This 'I love Lucy' stuff is only cute for so long...", of course, the audience's response is "Amen!" Lester shoots San Francisco for mean-spirited maximum freakiness: we see Roller Derby tourneys, stoned hippies wandering around, horrifying tract housing of the kind that I would associate with the U.K. and not California, gargoyle-like Roller Derby fans, a penguin show, and some Hollywood types shooting a cigarette commercial in Muir Woods. At one point, we watch Janis Joplin performing with Big Brother and Holding Company; at another point, a very young Jerry Garcia is glimpsed singing with the Grateful Dead -- we can only barely see him: there is a late sixties light show underway with gobs of gelatinous color floating over everyone's faces and figures.