What Resignation Means

Petulia (1968)

Directed by Richard Lester

Starring

George C. Scott as Archie Bollen

Julie Christie as Petulia Banner

There’s a reason why Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” resonated with me as a senior in high school, and part of that reason is Petulia, which I had seen some late Friday night before then. George C. Scott, who I had seen in a number of movies (Patton, Day of the Dolphin, a television movie called Rage, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove) is an unlikely leading man. Because he is not handsome, he is genuine. Julie Christie is a vision, and now, should remind us how much more difficult a job a beautiful actress has, because her authenticity must shine through her dense surface beauty. It’s hard to tell who plays Prufrock and who plays the mermaid in this film, because no one hears the singing, and if they do, they hear the song while bound to the mast of a sinking ship.

This is at once a fanciful and a grim movie. The pace is jaunty, and the editing jumps the viewer forward, back, and side to side. Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead perform in the film. Lester creates momentary tableaux that are discordant and arresting. A happy person, well ensconced in a healthy relationship would dismiss it as an over-intellectualized and cynical film. Since, at 17, I was neither particularly happy, and never had a relationship, it struck me as a warning about what waited in adulthood, and what a horrible warning it was.

Archie, a successful surgeon is in the process of divorce. When asked by his best friend, “What was it Archie? The sex bit?” Archie answers, “Barney, what would you say if I told you that one day I got very tired of being married… I know what I want. To feel something.” How is it that marriage and success did not give Archie a place to feel?

In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes how the men of her class are fed into society as boys and emerge as cabinet ministers, or generals, or heads of colleges, and that they don’t have any real say in what they become; they are simply shot out. They do not have the opportunity to feel, and feelings are antithetical to their professional lives. Archie faces a similar challenge. He has been trained to rise above feelings, to perform medicine dispassionately. When he tells Barney that he wants to feel, Barney answers, “Grow up,” then asks, sadly, what he is going to do about his wife.

The film is set in San Francisco, and is populated by characters who act out and on their feelings. Archie is surrounded by a perpetual theater of feelings and opinions (and by the gruesome broadcasts of news from Vietnam). Lester’s film frames these performances as shallow, even callous. When asking for help speaking with a Spanish speaking man, one cool answers, “I only know Polish.” That’s how it is: the joke’s on you.

When Archie meets Petulia, she too speaks in cool shorthand, “I’ve been married six months and I’ve never had an affair.” The thing is, Archie is already cool—ice cold—and answers, “It’s been known to happen.” Petulia persists, and Archie resists. Finally she says, “Archie, why do you play this dumb game, this crappy pretense of resisting the beautiful lady? You should be jolly lucky I’m even talking to you.” She’s right, of course, but Archie doesn’t budge, until of course, he does, sharing a personal detail from his life. They make an abortive trip to a hotel. He sends her way. But they are far from done. “I’m trying to save you, Archie,” she implores later, “I’m fighting for your life.”

Petulia has a secret. She is fighting for her life. She witnessed Archie perform surgery on a small boy she and her husband became tangled up with—fixing the mess she and her husband made. Her husband abuses her. Archie is the solid, generous, and cool alternative to the privileged, abusive, and secretly volatile world she inhabits. She shows up at Archie’s bachelor apartment, bearing a tuba. Romance of a sort follows. And ends. Archie is perplexed, and then angry that Petulia stays with a man who beats her. And then knows there is nothing he can do.

I’m not sure how to manage the feelings of hope and resignation, but at 17, the balance was on hope. Mostly. 17 year olds can harbor a bent idealism that finds its respite in sarcasm and cynicism, but it’s an act. Real resignation must be earned and waits at the end of a long driveway. I fought against it. I still do. Petulia was a message from adults who were not pleased with any of the alternatives for adulthood being put forth at the time. I’m not sure if it appealed to me, as much as it haunted me. How could one lead an authentic life? And what was the place of love and marriage in such a life? I thought about that often at 16 and 17.