In the late '80s, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch called "The 1960s Movie." In about five minutes, it included swinging Londoners, double entendres, and if memory serves, a person in a gorilla suit, all set to an insanely catchy theme song with a chorus of something like "It's a '60s movie! It's a '60s movie!" Not a great sketch, but a fairly accurate one that lumped together the clichés of '60s comedies from What's New Pussycat? on. In its opening strokes, 1968's Petulia looks like one of those movies. Based on John Haase's novel Me And The Arch Kook Petulia, it stars Julie Christie as a transplanted free-spirited English rose who, seemingly on a whim, singles out square-looking divorcing surgeon George C. Scott for an affair.
The resemblance pretty much stops there, although there's no mistaking the film for the product of another decade. Filmed in San Francisco at the height of Haight-Ashbury, it captures a city where the explosion of freedom has caused some collateral damage. Scott has left his wife (Shirley Knight) and two kids for reasons even he doesn't seem to understand. The times give Christie an excuse to behave, in Scott's words, like a kook. But by degrees, director Richard Lester and editor Tony Gibbs reveal the sadness barely hidden beneath her kookiness, flashing back to bits of her life with husband Richard Chamberlain and forward to things to come.
Lester, continuing his New Wave-inspired experiments from A Hard Day's Night and The Knack And How To Get It, structures the film ingeniously, but the form is always in service to the emotions, even when the emotions remain beneath the surface. Scott and Christie wander through antiseptic locations where hippie craziness has begun to creep in: a formal ball, a near-tryst at a fully automated drive-in parking-garage/hotel, a late-night trip to a brightly lit supermarket. But even as the film suggests crumbling traditional values might be a good thing, John Barry's score provides a constant reminder that not everyone who struggles to be free gets to enjoy their freedom. Scott sits alone in his all-mod-cons bachelor pad as visions of the war flash on the television; Christie's outwardly carefree attitude won't help her slip her chains. It's a true '60s movie.
Key features: A making-of doc and a trailer that might as well be advertising a different film.