DVD released 6/20/06
In the mid-sixties, Richard Lester was hung up on fun – judging by his Beatles movies and his lovely lark The Knack, I’d say he had a fun fetish, a perversion towards filmed pleasure. So what’s a suspicious bummer like Petulia doing in Lester’s oeuvre, this movie that puts a curmudgeon divorcee at its center? Dig Dick’s 1968 outing where the hippies are sardine thieves and even when a woman’s life’s at stake they don’t wanna Help! Is this Lester’s apologia? Are we reading his letter of resignation from the sixties, beating the clock by two years? And is that why there are so many watches in this movie? The Hippie Generation’s turned out to be the Pepsi Generation, and they’re just as pursuant of middle class comfort as the Greatest Generation. “You swinging marrieds,” Archie spits at Petulia when she won’t turn a quick one with him in a mod hotel.
Or is Petulia suspect for evidence of a sudden shift to sophistication, the sign Lester was fed up with his little rock and roll movies for girls with cheeks still damp from the ’64 Sullivan Show? Petulia could be his Interiors – he doesn’t want to make funny movies anymore, he’s done running and jumping. But can he keep from simply standing still?
Whatever its raison d’etre, Petulia is a splendid affair, more adventurous than Lester’s previous pictures, with tons more ideas. It verges on the elegiac, and a more appropriate director for a send-off to the sixties does not come to mind. In its structure of flashbacks/forwards and deep cynicism about marriage, it resides on some kind of terrific trajectory together with other tailspins like Two For the Road and Bad Timing, the latter which happens to have been directed by Nicholas Roeg, the cinematographer of Petulia.
Despite the proclamations of the suits on the DVD’s obligatory Present Day Production-Of Featurette, Petulia is not an exaltation of its era. It looks more like a living funeral live from Haight-Ashbury than a look from inside the lava lamp. The hippie cars are rolling backwards and babies are turning up at Dead parties. In the middle of the muck is George C. Scott’s Archie, an iconoclast curmudgeon underdressed for the ceremonies, stepping over the hippie gravestones with a grimace rather than a condolence.
Lester probably thinks Archie’s a pretty good guy who’s trying to figure out how much decency has got to do with value, a guy who’s got no pretensions about his own unimportance and even satirizes his own insignificance: Archie cribs other people’s cute little phrases with regularity, grudgingly having a gas generating a cipher out of himself. “All that broken glass,” he echoes back to Petulia when he finds out she’s not the window-breaking type she claims. Archie’s got enough contempt to go around, and he’s zealous about it to the point of swallowing other people’s words and hocking them out like so much phlegm.
When Archie’s not too pissed off, he drops the Bunker routine and dotes on Petulia, a mixed up chick who lugs around tubas instead of flowers – bouquets would be too easy for a girl like her, wouldn’t they? This gal is the positive personification of a groovy generation on its way out. She’s married to a mannequin and picks up stiff doctors like Archie with self-consciously counter-cultural quips like “I’ve been married six months and haven’t had an affair.”
Once the adultery gets gyrating, Lester starts cutting all over the place, mixing up a collage of flashforwards and flippant fragments that fascinate the viewer with a feeling for forecast. If the temporal dislocation isn’t just a stylistic pretension (it isn’t), we’ve got to make something of where the glimpses of past/future are landing. The flashes could be thoughts or memories, but they also might be tantalizing puzzle pieces laid out, arranging the whole narrative around itself. Implicit is the hope that we care enough to be intrigued and not put off by editing MacGuffins there to peak our interest rather than inject anything into the content. But when little Oliver – Petulia’s Mexican adoptee – gets run over while a menacing Joseph Cotton longs for Petulia’s murder next to her hospital bed (his son should be able to kill her for her adultery, he implies), the relationship of shots looks like cause-effect and the structure of Petulia works the themes into the cuts. You can hear Lester snickering behind the hospital curtain: “Old fashioned mores are absolutely murder!”
All the cutting around – exchanging one image for a similar one and entering a scene so jarring in its difference that it’s grotesque – results in some implicit symbiosis of character traits and motivations. The further Oliver gets from Petulia & David the more Archie tries to sew things up with his brood, and you can be pretty sure that Archie never beats Polo or Petulia because David’s got the anti-lady violence at its capacity, which is a good thing for Arch and happens to lend some sharp ambiguity to Dave’s proclamation that only a man of utter weakness would beat a woman.
Petulia’s distaste for marriage carries through to the end, as opposed to its somewhat saccharine contemporary Two For the Road. The baby at the Dead party doesn’t seem so much like a sign of decadence as an emblem of crummy responsibility creeping into the counter-culture, and Petulia’s return to David seems symbolic of the inevitable crumbling of the Fun Revolution. And Lester’s even got Archie breaking into Alcatraz. I mean, how jadedly metaphorical do you wanna get?