The opening of Richard Lester’s 1968 film Petulia suggests we’re in for a lightweight, zany, 60s romantic comedy. Very soon, however, the film starts to become disturbing and it ends up a very dark movie indeed. It starts with a young woman named Petulia (Julie Christie) making an assignation with a recently divorced doctor, Archie (George C. Scott). The movie then moves both forward and backwards, with flashbacks and flashforwards, and we gradually learn a little more about Petulia and her husband (Richard Chamberlain) and about Archie’s life pre- and post-divorce. The director of photography was Nicolas Roeg. I wonder if Lester influenced Roeg or Roeg influenced Lester? Either way, you can see in Petulia some of the techniques that Roeg used so successfully in his own movies. The cinematography is certainly superb. It’s extraordinarily vivid and captures the atmosphere of San Francisco in those heady days of 1968. Also there to add to the atmosphere, in the opening charity ball sequence, are the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, fronted by a young singer by the name of Janis Joplin.
The movie is really in some ways more concerned with the background than the main story, with the ways that technology was changing society, with the social changes of the 60s, with changing attitudes towards sex and marriage, and with the escalating level of violence in modern life. There’s so much violence in this movie, but everyone is pretending it isn’t there. In shot after shot there are TVs playing inn the background, showing scenes of the Vietnam War, but nobody is watching. And it’s the same with the violence in Petulia’s life. Everyone - her husband, her parents-in-law, Petulia herself, are just pretending it doesn’t exist. In fact the people in this movie seem to be trying not to notice anything at all. Not to notice that their marriages are either pathological or stifling, not to notice how impersonal their lives are becoming, not to notice how unhappy they are. Petulia is a very stylish movie and a very unsettling movie as well. A great movie by a very underrated director.