Petulia (Julie Christie) has been married for six months to naval architect David (Richard Chamberlain), but she's already looking around for someone new. Someone not impotent, for example, like Archie (George C. Scott) a surgeon who has recently come out of a divorce from his younger wife Polo (Shirley Knight). Still a little shell shocked by his separation Archie doesn't respond much when Petulia meets him at a charity ball and asks him to take her elsewhere, but could it be that she is exactly what he needs at this point in his life?
Or vice versa? This adaptation of John Haase's novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia by Lawrence B. Marcus for director Richard Lester confounded many in the obscure and fractured design that it adopted to tell its story. The cinematography was by Nicolas Roeg, an unmistakably in the style he'd employ for his future directorial efforts so that one wonders who was coaching whom on the set. Lester had been best known for his zany comedies up until this one, which was seen as a departure, yet really there's a bitterness and melancholy in many of Lester's films that would only grow more obvious after this.
Regret is the overriding tone of the film, regret of people behaving badly and feeling lost in a modern life moving too fast. As a snapshot of the swinging sixties, Petulia could have easily been a wacky, exuberant romp through the culture of San Francisco where it's set with the adorable "kook" Christie at its centre. But it's not, in fact it's a film that sees its regret turning to anger at the way the world is heading: it was shot in the Summer of Love, but this film takes no joy in its setting and indeed features something between discomfiture and panic.
Scott and Christie have rarely been better, though their characters are frustrating. Archie does take Petulia back to his hotel room that night after the charity ball, but their relationship never blossoms, not even in a naughty and illicit affair manner. Instead Petulia clings to him, doing crazy things like stealing a tuba to impress him, while he isn't sure he wants a new love in his life. As for David, he seems like the dashing playboy type but he will soon reveal his darker side and Polo, having found a new, but boring boyfriend is confused as to why her marriage ended the way it did.
Individually there are excellent scenes, but string them all together in the style they use and you have a hard film to like. There are flashforwards to traumatic events, hippies hoving into view (including The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin performing - not that we hear much of them) and the Vietnam War on television, all summoning an unfriendly landscape that as the film draws on is more and more like the experience of spending time with someone feeling sorry for themself and beginning to lash out. When David finally, brutally attacks Petulia Archie feels responsible for picking up the pieces, but he cannot put them back together again in a satisfactory way and neither can this film. It's interesting, but leaves you chilly. Music by John Barry.