Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 4. 1969.
Putting Flesh on the bones
Putting Flesh on the bones
Richard Lester made his name with the two Beatle films, displaying a frenetic involvement in the film techniques of television commercials. In fact, the two films were little more than super-glossy advertisements for the group's original talents. It was difficult to detect just how much was Lester and how much was Beatle.
Lester's next two films, The Knack and How to Get It and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum were both based on well-known material. But both films showed that Lester was able to embelish them in his own personal style, in spite of an over-use of gimmick.
His new film Petulia (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts) begins in a flurry of flash-backs and forwards, making one groan at the thought of another incomprehensible-till-the-end jumble. But the beginning is only that. The films soon settles down into a reasonably coherent and pointed drama of Human Communication.
In his first Hollywood film the director is obviously revelling in the opportunity to use superior resources, as several other young British directors have found (Boormans Point Blank and Yates's Bullitt), and the chance to extend the maturity of his content. Violent, as opposed to fluent, technique—present a chaotic and destructive picture of modern life. No detail escapes the camera as we are bombarded with the grotesque and the inane.
The background is modern San Francisco, home of the topless craze and the hippies. But the film is not about vouth and revolt. No-one cares for the Beatles or the Knack. The problem is trying to integrate existence with satisfaction. Arch-kook Petulia (Julie Christie) seeks solace from her tenuous marriage in an affair with Archie (George C. Scott). She wants commitment to fulfil her emotional desires, but Archie, still under-going a re-assessment after his divorce, is unwilling. His job as a doctor constantly forces him to be involved with people, but he finds this restricts him.
In Petulia he sees something which he cannot understand or appreciate. Their first meeting, a bizarre sequence in an automated motel, ends in nothing. Archie is torn between his ex-wife, his children, his mistress and Petulia. He goes through the motions of trying to give them meaning and feeling but ends up like the automatons we see lurking throughout in the background.
Petulia's attempt at overcoming her emotional sterility and her desire for freedom is compromised by her inability to grasp her situation. When she is discovered at Archie's flat by her husband (Richard Chamberlain) and beaten up, she later denies it to Archie. The audience is held in suspense as to what actually happened, but what eventuates is never in doubt.
The acting is as detached, in keeping with the theme. Even so, Lester, is seems, is better at controlling cameras and lights than people. Julie Christie doesn't have quite enough kookiness to convince, though Scott, seldom seen on screen, is good, as expected. Chamberlain is excellent as the cool guy with a nasty streak, able to switch easily from one to the other.
Nicholas Roeg's photography is excellent. Almost every frame of the film is packed with detail. So much so that the significance or otherwise can easily be lost. The plot triangle is filled in with quick slashes till the final picture emerges, cold and shattering. Throughout emotions are remotte. The film presents sentimentality only In softfocus closeups of Archie's wife Poly (Shirley Knight), the rest is aggression and brutality.
Petulia will, because it may appear incoherent and over-stated, be under-rated in its impact. We rarely see outside of news-reels, the realistic future face of domination by the machine. Generally gimmicks are used for comic effect. Here they are used as menacing threats. Petulia may not seem to be obvious at present, and only time will tell its real value.
As to the growing maturity in Lester's films we can only speculate. How I Won The War will, if previous trends are any indication, take a year to reach Wellington.