This is an unfeeling and callous portrait of icy, hardened people living the dystopian American dream of the late 1960s. Not at all the groovy, feel-good movie I was expecting, despite psychedelic performances by Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, this tale, based on the novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, by John Chase, is about a wealthy doctor, George C. Scott who's left his wife and children, but doesn't know why, and falls complacently into a complicated and brief affair with a deeply unhappy, lovely thing played with detached honesty by Julie Christie.
Richard Chamberlain is perfect as her cruel husband who leaches off the money of his appearance obsessed parents (see an older Joseph Cotten showing he's still got it). The film is truly of its times (to a fault), which may be distancing for contemporary audiences: the editing is initially discombobulating and there is not one sympathetic character. Even the young Mexican boy that Julie Christie ends up stealing across the boarder and keeping without compunction is a brat with a filthy mouth.
Yet, despite it's anachronistic qualities, it also deals with universal truths. Specifically loneliness and the complexities of modern life and the emotionless creatures we can become to protect ourselves against it. A truly unique film that won't make you feel good, but will haunt your thoughts. As Roger Ebert put it “Richard Lester's 'Petulia' made me desperately unhappy, and yet I am unable to find a single thing wrong with it. I suppose that is high praise. It is the coldest, cruelest film I can remember, and one of the most intellectual.”