Tuesday, February 20, 2007

PETULIA (1968)

Although on the surface this seems like a 60's period piece, with hippies and violence and mod clothes and critiques of materialism and alienation, not to mention a fractured narrative style with flashbacks and flash-forwards, it's really barely dated at all. The psychedelic trappings of the era which might might most obviously date the film remain in the background; the main characters here mostly look and act like people living in the 21st century. This was my second viewing of the film, and it's a movie I appreciate more than like. It begins like a surreal screwball comedy with oddly mannered dialogue, as if someone like Edward Albee had re-written BRINGING UP BABY or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. At a high society charity function (with Janis Joplin performing), respected surgeon George C. Scott, attending stag due to his impending divorce, is set upon by desperately whimsical beauty Julie Christie, the title character, who is unhappily married to ship architect Richard Chamberlain. Christie goes after Scott rather like Hepburn goes after Grant in BABY, but Scott is a little more able to keep his equilibrium. After the ball, he does wind up going off into the night with her but despite going to a hotel, they don't quite finish their one-night stand--she, as he puts her in a cab: "I'm going to marry you, Archie"; he, resignedly, "It's the Pepsi generation." After this bumpy start, they do begin an affair in which, we assume, she will loosen him up a bit and he will perhaps normalize her a bit (at one point, he says he's tired of her "I Love Lucy" antics), but things take a turn for the near-tragic as we learn more about their backgrounds. His ex-wife (Shirley Knight) has custody of their two sons and she's about to remarry a dorky post-grad student majoring in hydraulics; Chamberlain, Christie's husband, apparently impotent, beats her on occasion and has a rich father (Joseph Cotton) who enables the son's behavior. When Chamberlain discovers Christie's affair, he beats her savagely while she's alone in Scott's apartment. She survives and Scott tries to pry her out of the family's grasp, but she ends up staying. In the last scene, set a year later, she has gotten pregnant and comes to Scott's hospital to have the baby. They meet and contemplate running off together, but don't.

In addition to exploring the mysteries of love and lust and intimate violence, the film also has running riffs on both the bourgeois culture and the counterculture of the time. For the middle and upper classes, artifice trumps reality: a worker installing a miniature greenhouse in Scott's apartment tells him that it's important that the flowers get no sunlight at all, just artificial light; in a very funny scene, Austin Pendleton plays a doctor who has to explain to a hospital patient that the TV set in her room is just a "dummy" one, there to encourage her to pay to rent a real one. On the other hand, the counterculture doesn't come off all that well: when the battered and bloody Christie is taken out of Scott's apartment, the hippies (among them Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead) make disparaging remarks like, "Call if you get work." There's an odd subplot about a Mexican boy who hops a ride to California with Christie and Chamberlain which becomes an important plot point, but its telling is the most fractured narrative strand of the whole movie, frustratingly so, and to no specific purpose that I could see. The time jumps and editing jolts seem to be devices to distance the viewers, and they do take some getting used to. Christie is very good, as is Scott, though it is a little disorienting at first to see him playing a tender, understanding man, the opposite of his usual loud, brusque, sometimes brutish roles. Beautifully photographed on location in San Francisco. Worth seeing, but be prepared to pay attention. [DVD]

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