I recently had an opportunity to attend a screening of Richard Lester's film, "Petulia", from 1968. I had never heard of the film before, which is surprising considering how much I have sought out Lester's work from that period. I was even more surprised to learn of the high reputation the film enjoyed (tying with "Annie Hall" for third place on a 1978 list of the best films of the past ten years).
With this bit of build up, I was quite intrigued to see the film itself. Watching the film, the influence of the French New Wave, and Godard in particular, became quite apparent. The film involves a recently-divorced middle-aged man, played by George C. Scott, and his relationship with a mod London girl, played by Julie Christie. The film is awash in 60s cultural touchstones, including musical performances by Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
Without getting too wrapped up in the details of the plot (which is quite complicated), I couldn't help but feel, as I watched the film, that a large part of its critical reputation was based on the fact that Lester was employing these New Wave techniques in the service of a "serious" drama. It was, in fact, the film's narrative concerns that held it back and seemed to restrain the brilliant visual flourishes that Lester engages in during the film's more inspired sequences.
I couldn't help but compare the film with Lester's previous work; his two films with the Beatles, certainly, but also "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" and "How I Won the War", in which New Wave techniques are allowed to flourish without concern for narrative logic. It's hard to think of any scene more vibrantly joyous and alive than the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence in "A Hard Day's Night", with its perfect synthesis of rock and roll and New Wave cinematic technique. The techniques that Lester employs in his work from this period seem much better suited to the kind of freewheeling comedy and musical films he'd been making up to this point. In The Beatles, he found the perfect subjects for his filmmaking style-as eclectic, vibrant and innovative in music as Lester was in the cinema. In "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", Lester has the opportunity to work with one of his direct cinematic ancestors-Buster Keaton-whose performance style works perfectly in the context of what Lester is doing. And "How I Won the War" is one of the best satires from any period. With the same aesthetic applied to a character drama, there is a definite tension between the elements as Lester deals with narrative concerns on the one hand, and with stylistic concerns on the other.
None of this is to take away from what Lester does achieve in "Petulia". It's a remarkably mature film, and particularly through Scott's nuanced performance, is a very intricate character study as well. Nicolas Roeg's cinematography, with its heightened emphasis on bright reds, works very well within Lester's visual style. There are certainly moments where the film's narrative and character development seem at odds with the techniques Lester is employing, though. It comes back to the concern that critics are willing to see things in a serious drama that they may never acknowledge as existing in "lower" genres, which overlooks the incredible work that Lester had been doing all along up to this point.
"Petulia", in this sense, may be a kind of 1960s equivalent of equally-forgotten films like "Cavalcade", wherein the very qualities the film was praised for have become passe. Fortunately, in the case of "Petulia", the film still has much to recommend it for contemporary viewers, from Lester's strong visual style, to the intricate performances of its lead actors.