Petulia (1968): Richard Lester’s Complex, Non-Linear Dissection of Marriage, Starring Julie Christie and George C. Scott

Pershalm Production (US/UK)

Nothing can be further from Richard Lester’s Beatles movies, “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” than his follow-up “Petulia,” a complex, non-linear narrative about tormented marriages and vacant relationships of the upper-middle class in the late 1960s.

For some historians, “Petulia” is a transition work, situated between Lester’s black-and-white gimmicky and stylized Beatles pictures and the bigger, more conventional narratives, such as “Juggernaut” and “Robin and Marian.”

Set in San Francisco, and placed against the Vietnam War, the movie captured the national mood–the zeitgeist–in impressive details. Vietnam features prominently in the background, through televised reports of the battles and casualties, but also in a more mysterious and intriguing way as metaphor of death: The film is about death as a stronger force than love in 1968, known as the Summer of Love.

The most perplexing fact is that “Petulia” was a studio-made picture with a decent production budget and major stars attached to it. It’s the kind of film that would never be made by mainstream Hollywood after 1975. Needless to say, the movie was a commercial flop, though it has never stopped showing at film festival and film societies. Seen twenty years later, “Petulia” has retained its status as one of that era’s most indelible, elliptical portrait of the national mood.

Fresh off from her Oscar-winning turn in “Darling” (1965), the visually stunning Julie Christie plays the eponymous heroine, a confused femme fatale with a dark secret, engaged in illicit affair with George C. Scott, who becomes a reluctant lover, and married to the good-looking but sadistic Richard Chamberlain. The film’s tale of marriage, adultery and divorce, or its portrait of domestic violence offers a parallel to the military violence in Vietnam.

Through various stylistic devices, we get the background stories of the three main characters. Upon meeting at a charity party, Petulia recognizes Archie as the surgeon who operated on the Mexican boy she and husband David had befriended on a recent trip to Tijuana; the abusive David may or may not have caused the boy’s injuries. Meanwhile, recent divorce Archie can’t forgive his former wife for marrying quickly a man he despises and tries to fulfill his parental duties by spending time and taking excursions with his two sons, one to Alcatraz.

In this picture, style becomes contents: Lester’s fragmented narrative (based on elliptical script), fractionalized time scheme (using flashbacks and flashforwards), and montages, captures the fermenting unrest of urban decay, the psychedelic culture of Haight-Ashbury at the time, with its contradictory lifestyle, and sharp distinction between the haves and have-nots.

Give it a chance: It takes about an hour (or half of the film) for the fragments of film to add up to anything coherent, if at all, and repeat viewing is encouraged to dissect the meanings of this complex work.

Richard Lester was an innovative 1960s director, the master of a new, jangled technique in which nothing is done straightforward, nothing is expressed in a conventional way, without interruption or decorative montage.

Perfectly cast as the haplessly confused, effortlessly alluring married woman, Christie is brilliant and utterly credible as a kook. So is George C. Scott, as the tough older doctor, involved in an on-again, off-again affair. At the time, Scott was mostly known as a supporting actor, but in two years he would win the Best Actor Oscar for Patton and will become a major player in Hollywood pictures of the 1970s (“The Hospital”).

At the time, the film sharply divided critics. Some thought that it was just spuriously romantic and ultimately superficial, idealizing the underclass experience without ever confronting the growing class differences in the US. Other reviewers singled out its innovative structure and style which they found pretentious and intrusive, as one critic wrote: In “Petulia,” Lester works this habit of distraction into bitter pathos; the jumpiness of the 1960s reaches a kind of apotheosis in complete paralysis.”


Petulia Danner (Julie Christie)
Archie Bollen (George C. Scott)
David Danner (Richard Chamberlain)
Barney (Arthur Hill)
Polo (Shirley Knight)
Wilma (Kathleen Widdoes)
May (Pippa Scott)
Warren (Roger Bowen)
Motel Receptionist (Richard Dysart)
Cameo by Janis Joplin


Produced by Raymond Wagner
Directed by Richard Lester
Screenplay: Leonard B. Marcus and Barbara Turner, based on the novel, “Me and the Arch Kook Petulia,” by John Haas.
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Production design: Tony Walton
Art direction: Dean Tavoularis
Costume: Tony Walton, Arlette Nastaf
Score: John Barry
Editing: John Gibbs

Running Time: 105 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R