The ’68 Comeback Special: Petulia

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Richard Lester withdrew his film PETULIA from the 1968 Cannes Film Festival as the protests reached a level that made any discussion of film impossible. “The cynicism that was being displayed was monstrous,” he told Andrew Yule. “There was a well-known French film director setting fire to the curtains during the day, but by the evening he was at a party with United Artists saying ‘This won’t affect my three-picture deal, will it?'”

“We’re talking about solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking about dolly shots and close-ups,” yelled Godard at a meeting (a man who had once said “a tracking shot is a moral question.”)

Lester found himself witnessing the police baton charge on protesters from Conrad Rooks’ luxury yacht, while guests ate, drank champagne, and listened to the live piano accompaniment. Lester suggested that his host might request the pianist to play a few revolutionary songs to get more in the spirit.

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PETULIA’s whole release was geared to Cannes, which meant it never recovered and was little seen at the time, a tragedy for a film with such a sharp focus on its own historical moment. But it’s cheering to see it coming to greater prominence as time passes — Lester’s sixties work has all passed through a phase of seeming dated (judging by the opinions of others — I never felt any embarrassment in admiring it), and come out the other end in sync with the present, somehow,

Here’s a video essay I’ve made with the brilliant Timo Langer, who cuts Mark Cousins’ films. We recently made a DVD extra for Arrow DVD’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER Blu-ray, and I hope we’ll be working together lots.

This inaugurates a collaboration with Dave “Scout” Tafoya which will see us writing about each of the 1968 competition entries. Every Thursday, here on Shadowplay and at Apocalypse Now.

A final enigma: is Julie Christie and Richard Chamberlain’s pad, which we seem to glimpse twice, all black or all white?

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Buy Petulia from Amazon.com.

Special thanks to the Scottish Documentary Institute for the loan of the sound kit!

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13 Responses to “The ’68 Comeback Special: Petulia”

  1. This is somehow appropriate on Elvis Death Week. Thanks David. From Memphis.

  2. I think Petulia is refreshing now for the way its not in synch with the 60s zeitgeist, it looks ahead and beyond. It shows the 60s as being less liberating, or at least how it was for one class of characters.

    The film has this impressive visual style(Nicholas Roeg’s brilliant work) and use of color. And Julie Christie is brilliant.

  3. Matthew Wilder Says:

    David: stunning!

  4. Lester had to balance Scott and Christie — he was typically brilliant on take one and got bored fast, whereas she took a few takes to get going. Amusingly, Robert Altman had the reverse problem on McCabe and Mrs Miller, where Christie was good to go ages before Warren Beatty, who would feel his way into a scene and not really start acting for the first ten takes.

    Matthew and Mike, thanks!

  5. I read somewhere that Robert Altman was initially offered or going to direct Petulia. He said that Lester did a brilliant job on the film and he couldn’t do better.

  6. By the way, is that your voice? The narration is excellent

  7. Petulia REALLY got under Pauline’s skin. She didn’t just call it “a Hate letter to America” she compared Julie Christie’s tuba-theft to “the worst of Irene Dunne” and said Roeg sabotaged “the city’s beautiful light.” I don’t know what she’s talking about on that score, save to say Lester resists the “picturesque” of San Francisco. Actually Petulia would make a great double feature with Vertigo as both are SF-centered, mysterious and romantic in entirely different ways.

    Christie tries to will Scott into a Romantic Leading Man, having discovered that Chamberlain — who looks like Prince Charming — is a Monster. Scott can’t do it though something in him longs to. At the last Christie is STILL a “damsel in distress” waiting for someone to save her. And we know there’s no one at all.

    This is a deeply disturbing in every way — from it’s resistance to the ‘screwball” scenario it keeps evoking only to destroy, right down to the superb score by Jane Birkin’s first husband.

  8. Yes, it’s my voice. I’ve been practicing. I did a temp VO for Natan which everybody was very nice about, but then I got Gavin Mitchell in to do it PROPERLY.

    Since Kael also dismisses 2001 in the same essay, it’s tempting to just dismiss her altogether. But some of what she says is very astute. Her inability to grant the movie the right of satire to exaggerate and distort explains a lot of her antipathy, leading her to accusing the film of obtaining a false conviction by planting evidence. She’s mostly generous towards the actors, at least.

    Lester has confused critics with tonal shifts and combining more than one kind of reality in his films fairly often — audiences rarely seem to have any trouble, though.

    John Barry did SUCH good work for Lester — it’s a real pity he destroyed that relationship by re-scoring Robin and Marian for producer Ray Stark, replacing a much darker Michel Legrand soundtrack.

  9. HA!!! I just recently been diving back into my copies of Soderbergh and Sinyard’s books on Lester, located an essay on PETULIA by Adrain Banks yesterday (while trying to find a Film Comment article on Lester & PETULIA by Richard Combs) and then watched PETULIA itself last night!!! So this Blog’s entry posting coudln’t have been more fortuitously (&/or eerily) timed!!!

    Excellent job on the video essay David (with very nice editing)!!! I like how you point out how the last act contains a series of (seemingly) random, yet curiously interesting scenes before slamming into the poignant ending. I was intrigued and also somewhat baffled by this initially but eventually ended up thinking it felt right. It just added to how the entire film keeps you unbalanced all the way through. Certainly this is a film that need to be watched several times before all of its depths can be fathomed!!!

    TED!!!

  10. Agreed. I feel I’m still getting more out of Petulia each time I watch, and that’s a pretty rare thing. As with Roeg’s films, a lot is buried or unstated or ambiguous.

    I don’t think I’d even wondered whose baby Petulia is carrying at the end, assuming, like Archie, that her pregnancy is the result of renewed marital relations. But the movie gives you PLENTY of grounds for doubt…

  11. Petulia screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus also scripted Richard Rush’s equally fragmented The Stunt Man

  12. The writing credits (and non-credits) on Petulia are complicated. Barbara Turner adapted John Haase faithfully, and Lester didn’t like it. He got Charles Wood to rewrite based on notes they took together. Marcus was brought in to de-anglicize the results. He called the treatment he worked from, “the most liberating document it was possible to hand any scriptwriter” and brought to it his own experience of divorce, which Wood and Lester had not experienced.

    Info from Andrew Yule’s Lester bio, a book Lester dislikes but which contains much useful background.

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