Petulia – the 60s weren't so crazy after all

Julie Christie was as beautiful then as she is now, and almost as fine an actress. This 1968 film captures the hippie era beautifully, and even features appearances by Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Stoned hippies wander through scenes and miss the point altogether. A beautiful psychedelic Volkswagen drives backwards. We see the brief obligatory scene of the Vietnam War on television. The city of San Francisco is a prime player, with the hills and curves reflecting what is going on in the relationship between George C. Scott and our heroine. And the flash forwards and backwards show us the way that past and future coexist in the mind and our need is to build from the pieces a coherent story. Thirty years ahead of Crash and other recent films that deconstruct time, this film told a story in pieces that reflect the confusion of the time and of the mind of the protagonist.

The plot is simple. An extraordinarily rich, prestigious, violent, and spoiled young man named David marries and then travels with his wife to Mexico. The woman may or may not have invited a young boy named Oliver to come back to San Francisco with them, but the boy gets in the car and refuses to leave. The woman finds a Mexican couple to look after him, but Petulia has him over for frequent visits. On one such visit, David gets tired of having the boy around and with threatening words and gestures demands she get rid of him. Petulia responds in a panic, and hurries him outside so they can get away from the coming storm. Soon after they go outside, Oliver runs playfully between two trucks and gets hit by a car, damaging his leg severely. He is taken to a hospital where Archie, a surgeon played by George C. Scott, operates on him. Julie Christie watches the surgery through a doorway and falls in love with Scott, though he doesn't notice or remember her at all. Later, as the boy recovers, she sees Archie at a party where the rock icons are playing and begins to “stalk” him, in a playful sixtyish sort of way. Eventually an affair begins, to which the husband responds by almost beating her to death. The culprit is never caught because family connections keep everything silent. Petulia is taken from the hospital by the family, and seems to settle down with her husband. She has some contact with George C. Scott, but essentially the two go their own ways. At the end of the movie, she is in the hospital about to give birth. Scott sees her and makes one final offer: he could take her to another hospital and presumably run away where the family would never see them again. She says no, but in the last scene as the anesthesia mask is placed on her face and a male hand touches her face, she whispers his name, “Archie.”

Of course, the film is told in a much less pedestrian manner. The director, Richard Lester, who had directed both the Beatles films, is in prime form. Nicholas Roeg, who went on to direct Don't Look Back with Ms. Christie, is Director of Photography. It captures the time as well as any film I have seen.

My first judgment of Petulia was that she was perhaps bipolar or even schizophrenic. As we learned more about her, I judged her to be simply a victim of abuse. But by the end of the movie, she seemed to be above all a person trapped by the wealth of her husband's family. Archie is by no means impoverished, but he cannot compete with Joseph Cotton and son Richard Chamberlain who have her imprisoned by their wealth and her fear of what they might do to her in order to protect their reputation. Archie's explanation for his own separation from wife and family is that he just wanted to feel alive. The enemy of life is the fear that traps Petulia and keeps her from the life that is just within her grasp. It was typical of the sixties that the struggle for life was not something that went on in our own minds but was rather a struggle against the “principalities and power” that ruled this earth. Whether life and freedom are possible in such a world is a question to which the film does not give a final answer. The ending is ambiguous, but it suggests that at least love may have a fighting chance.