PETULIA: Why Richard Lester’s 1968 Masterpiece is So Underrated



PETULIA: Why Richard Lester’s 1968 Masterpiece is So Underrated – Cinema Scholars








































Introduction

Imagine a film set in the late 1960s. You can hear the psychedelic rock-n-roll and see the acid-laced colors and the paisley-printed fashions. You can hear the open discussions about generational shifts. Now, imagine that film was set and filmed during the iconic “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, and said film opens with a live performance from Janis Joplin. Now imagine, also, that the story is told in a fragmented narrative that seems to mirror the chaos of the time. That film exists. It’s 1968’s Petulia.
George C. Scott and Julie Christie stylishly posing by the Golden Gate Bridge in ‘Petulia’ (1968)
Petulia is directed by the British master behind The Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Further, not only does this exquisite film have performances by Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), but also The Grateful Dead. It also stars Academy Award winner Julie Christie in her most charming role yet. 
With a prestigious resume such as that and a gripping story, why is this film not better known? The reasons for that are as unfortunate as the affair that carries on in the film. Because of this, Petulia is a fascinating film that deserves closer examination. It’s high time that this amazing film got the proper respect that it’s due. 

The Plot

The movie opens at a benefit dinner where Petulia Danner (Julie Christie) sees Dr. Archie Bollen (George C. Scott) and immediately zeros in on him. She tells him that she has been married for six months and has yet to have an affair, trying to draw him in. Even though Archie is recently divorced from his perfectly nice wife, he rejects Petulia’s advances.
Petulia is much younger than the middle-aged Archie and her forwardness comes off as an annoying trait of “The Pepsi Generation.” However, she is persistent. She continues to show up to his work and his home until Archie eventually relents. In no time at all, he is crazy about her, but that’s far from all.
The undeniably talented and charming Julie Christie in a scene from ‘Petulia’ (1968)
We learn that Petulia’s appetite for Archie was not at all random. We also learn that her home life is in shambles as she struggles to deal with her abusive husband (Richard Chamberlain). The reason for her “crush” on Archie is actually quite horrifying. However, due to the film’s style of storytelling, we learn why much later on in the film. 
Famously, Petulia starts in the middle of the story and moves simultaneously forward and backward from scene to scene until the audience is able to piece the story together by the end. Coupled with groovy music and incredibly 60s editing techniques, the entire film serves to feel a little like a cathartic hallucinogenic trip in the best way. Campy psychedelic films like The Trip (1967), or even the total misfire Skidoo (1968) tried to achieve what Petulia actually does: make a meaningful film in the 1960s that looks and feels authentically hippie. 

Themes

Like The Graduate (1967), a much more famous film from this same time period, Petulia wrestles with existential purpose. It does so beautifully while setting Petulia and Archie’s journeys against San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury during the ‘real’ Summer of Love. Talk about a time capsule! In fact, anyone interested in 60s history and cinema should be required to watch Petulia. If only simply to see Haight-Ashbury captured on celluloid at its hippie height. 
Big Brother and the Holding Company playing at the benefit at the start of the ‘Petulia’ (1968)
The existential crisis of Petulia works on two levels. This is why the film is so powerful. From a feminist perspective, for example, it’s not just Archie who is lost in life and it’s not Petulia who saves Archie. Neither character saves the other and both of them are trying to find themselves at different stages in their lives. This is done using the backdrop of the groovy 60s as a metaphor for such exploration. Archie is trying to redefine himself as a middle-aged man who is on his own again whose friends know him as one-half of a couple. 
The existential crises are coupled with generational ones. Archie is certainly having a midlife crisis. Further, his friends seem to think that his divorce is part of that crisis. Archie is newly single and much older than he was when he was previously single. Subsequently, he struggles to find himself in a world that looks a lot different from the one that he last knew.
The Flower Children have taken over San Francisco. With their influx, they have brought with them new ideas of love, romance, and fun. Archie is grappling with his relevance in this world, much like Don Draper did in the latter half of Mad Men. However, Archie is also open to using this exploratory time to find himself. If anything, the hippie background that the Summer of Love provides the film serves as a metaphor for the characters’ to find themselves.  
Petulia
A theatrical poster for the film ‘Petulia’ (1968)
The existential crises are also demonstrated through the film’s skewering of consumerism. This feels as fresh today as it did then. Several times throughout Petulia, gadgets are being peddled and sold that promise to make modern Americans’ lives easier. Yet, they are all hilariously pointless. These scenes are actually the funniest in the film. They also show how vapid consumerism, and in some cases, hippiedom can be.
In a hospital scene, for example, the hospital shows patients fake television screens that are used to attempt to sell real TV sets to their patients. Automation is satirized throughout the movie. This serves to show just how fast things are changing in American culture at that time, and, as the film suggests, not necessarily for the better. 
To put it in modern terms, Petulia perfectly captures the vibe shift in the late 1960s. Uniquely, one could view Petulia as A ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ done right. Yes, that phrase was coined much later, but modern viewers may be tempted to describe Petulia as an MPDG. Yet, she is so much deeper than that. A lot of the 2000s indie films used this trope to further the story arc of the male character. However, Petulia uses the titular character’s mania and quirky personality to hide her darkness. It’s a mask.
Petulia
Petulia hugging her stolen tuba
For example, Petulia inexplicably brings a tuba to Archie’s house late at night. We later learn that she threw a rock through a pawn shop window in order to steal the large instrument after a violent fight she had recently had with her husband. She uses the kooky tuba trick at Archie’s house as a ploy to avoid going home. 
Her quirkiness is being used to obscure her deeply troubling problems at home. She feels lost as a newlywed whose wedded bliss is far from what she anticipated. Throw in the tragedy that will not be spoiled here and it’s easy to see how the young Petulia would feel drawn to someone like Archie, who seems stable and secure. Archie, on the other hand, is looking to loosen up and find himself again. This is ultimately what seems so fun about Petulia. She’s spontaneous and wild. What’s not to love?! 
Ultimately, however, both characters know that the other cannot solve each other’s problems. They have to solve their own, very unlike the MPDG trope that comes later. While their intersection may have inspired both of them, neither character is ultimately The Answer, which is refreshing. That’s yet another reason why Petulia holds up so well. The film carries such nuance. It gives its female characters a great deal of agency and emotional depth and takes us down a surprising road. 
Petulia
Richard Chamberlain, George C. Scott, and Julie Christie on an incredibly detailed and colorful set during a tense scene where the three finally meet

How Did it Get Made?

Petulia was director Richard Lester’s very first American feature film. He chose to set the film in San Francisco, only somewhat aware of the treasure trove that that summer would bring them. From local music acts that wound up becoming titans of psychedelic rock to incredibly authentic hippie extras, the film expertly inserted the counter culture into the original story. 
The film is actually an adaptation of the John Hesse novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, published in 1966. Petulia was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner who, fun fact, is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother. With cinematography from Nicolas Roeg and a score by John Barry, Petulia was set to be a great film from the jump. Throw in the cast, of whom Julie Christie was always the first and only choice to portray the titular character, and they had an instant masterpiece on their hands. 
The book does not have the same type of storytelling that Petulia has. Lester, perhaps inspired by the trippy vibes all around him, wanted the story to be specifically fragmented. With a bifurcated style of storytelling, the audience is left rediscovering what the film is about from scene to scene. Lester himself said: 

“I want to offer the scattershot of experience to an audience and make them work. I want to make each person sitting in a row see a different film.” 

Director Richard Lester on the set of ‘Petulia’ (1968) with George C. Scott and Julie Christie

So What Happened?

Petulia was set to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was canceled that year. The 21st Cannes Film Festival was supposed to be held in May 1968, but it was canceled due to a rash of riots and protests that had exploded throughout France at the time in what is known colloquially as “May 1968.”
Like most of the world in the latter half of the 60s, leftist student groups and workers’ rights organizations began to speak out about injustices and political shifts that had happened earlier in the year. It’s far too much French political history to get into in a review of an American-English film, but essentially the French economy had tanked under conservative president Charles de Gaulle and students at the University of Paris began taking to the streets to protest.
They were met with tear gas and the injustice of such a response only spurned further conflicts throughout the country. This time period ultimately lead to social and political change and served to be a turning point in 20th century French history, but it did sadly delay the premieres of several groundbreaking films that were set to compete that year. 
The cancellation affected several films including Anna Karenina, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, The Girl on a Motorcycle, and Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball. In 2008, five of the intended 1968 films got screenings at the festival, but Petulia has yet to see that honor. This had a huge effect on the film’s release and reception and is just one of the reasons why the film has taken so long for critics and audiences to discover.

Another reason for the film’s inability to find a market with audiences and critics is simply history. Petulia is almost too ahead of its time while being firmly IN its time. That unique position made it difficult to see just how historical the movie would end up being. In this way, Petulia only gets better with age. 

Reception

The reception at the time and with age has been predominantly glowing. With the exception of the notoriously difficult to please Pauline Kael, critics who saw the film in the late 60s marveled at the masterpiece. Roger Ebert meanwhile said in his 1968 review of the film:

“Richard Lester’s Petulia made me desperately unhappy, and yet I am unable to find a single thing wrong with it.”

Film critics and nerds of the world have come around to this film harder with time, praising it for its uncanny ability to be in its time and to also manage to give lasting commentary on the time that it is being filmed and set in. How many other films have done that? All in all, Petulia is a masterpiece and it’s finally time for it to be recognized as such.

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