Petulia (Richard Lester / U.S., 1968):

Richard Lester visits his homeland and gives screwball comedy the sick soul of the Sixties. John Barry's music in the introductory credits is acutely reminiscent of Vertigo, another San Francisco tale of people finding and losing each other, finding again and losing again. The maimed elite, dressed to the nines, ascends to the mod party awkwardly trying to bridge the bourgeoisie and Janis Joplin; the surgeon (George C. Scott) is accosted by the flighty socialite (Julie Christie) and the couple retires to a mechanized motel out of Tashlin's nightmares for the half-hearted liaison that's expected of their characters. "We're swinging young marrieds," Scott sighs, a lament for the emptiness of countercultural "freedom" expressed in Christie's pose of exhausted archness, with tuba and fractured rib ("Aren't I a kook, though"). The heroine is married to a cigarette-ad kind of guy with a flashing violent temper (Richard Chamberlain), relationships begin to tangle when a trip to Mexico introduces a young urchin and larks darken into tragedy. Scott and Shirley Knight whip up a concerto of alienated nuances around a visit to a bachelor apartment and a bag of cookies, Joseph Cotten as Mr. Old America (and Old Hollywood) laments the loss of values; Haight-Ashbury and Alcatraz, psychedelic nightclubs and roller-derbies, Nicolas Roeg's cinematography deforms them all for the sake of shifting cultural tectonics and Resnais shout-outs. When exactly did the decade's rebellious promise curdle? There are shock-cuts and dissolves, slideshow freeze-frames and disembodied voices -- the Lester jitters, though here the jack-rabbiting technique embodies foreboding and dissonance rather than gimmicky whimsy. Life's surfaces have fragmented beyond control, people are entrapped in kookiness, dream and memory end on the surgery table: Lester for the first time melds flakiness into compassion for characters struggling for emotional involvement, sorting through stylistic irritation and locating raw human nerves. With Arthur Hill, Pippa Scott, Kathleen Widdoes, Roger Bowen, The Grateful Dead, The Committee, and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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