“Your hair, it gleams,” says Dr Archie (George C. Scott) to Petulia (Julie Christie) at the entrance of the swanky Fairmont San Francisco where they previously locked eyes amid a rambunctious Big Brother and the Holding Company live performance, done as a psychedelic add-on at a bourgeois benefit for victims of car accidents.

Wrapped in creamy white silk and feathers – topped with a pair of pearly chandelier earrings – Petulia is a shiny thing indeed. Yet the luminosity emitting from her presence feels doomed. The young newly-wed is a Swinging London goddess transplanted into the catalogue of American household goods, and her sensuality here has all the beauty and tragedy of the latest refrigerator model. In the spirit of free love, she offers Archie an adulterous tryst, but the kooky nonchalance of her request belies uncertainties. She might seem ‘with it’ but, like Archie, she does not know what she wants.

Such juxtapositions of 1960s liberal archetypes and conservative undercurrents recur in Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), where the narrative is punctuated with the abrupt jump-cuts that the director made his signature in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and The Knack… and How to Get It (1965). The editing conveys an even greater sense of agitation here, consciously deploying sudden flashforwards and flashbacks. On release, the montage was dismissed as a faux-modernist adornment to a storyline that resembles soap opera fluff. But these reactions fail to acknowledge how the temporal disruptions not only skew the clichéd characterisations found in John Haase’s forgettable source novel but also deconstruct the popular image of San Francisco as the hippie epicentre.

Though shot in 1967 at the height of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture vogue, with Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer, Petulia foresees the gradual wilting of flower power. Hippie culture is present only in brief moments, seen in Janis Joplin rocking out next to a luxury car offered as a raffle prize, or in abstract inserts of indeterminate colours.

Rich in contextualisation, these psychedelic reprieves are nevertheless unsustainable, and constantly undercut by the restlessness of Archie’s and Petulia’s impotent efforts to form a coherent connection. Even the Golden Gate Bridge comes off as eerie. It is seen whole only in stilted shots of Archie and Petulia posing motionlessly in front of it, as if in a fashion spread. In other scenes, the camera gazes upon the city through tight close-ups of the bridge’s red cables, fragmenting and unveiling the gaps within the urban landscape, which are loaded with intergenerational, political and racial poignancy.

Petulia (1968)

Golden Gate Park, famous for its 1967 colossal Human Be-In gathering that kicks off San Francisco’s Summer of Love, also acquires an atmosphere of unease. Small kids playing at soldiers recall the TV reports about the Vietnam War heard throughout the film. Besides complicating the geographical symbols of San Francisco counterculture, Lester subverts the swinging carefreeness of his own previous films. During Archie’s outing with his children to the historic Fort Point, father and sons run amok among the masonry’s corridors, their jumping and leaping reminiscent of the Fab Four in A Hard Day’s Night. However, the boys’ striped souvenir hats, which read ‘Vacationing in Alcatraz’, carry an insidious undertone. If the history of state incarceration can be commercialised, no wonder psychedelic music is also co-opted to extract money from the rich.

Like Petulia’s ivory get-up, the film is stripped of the trippy colours associated with the period and place. Most of Petulia and Archie’s interactions take place in modern, sterile interiors. After their meeting at the hotel, the pair go to a voguish motel where the furniture is all white and metallic, full of unfeeling automatic gadgets. In another nocturnal sequence, the would-be lovers stroll around a near futuristic grocery store where the employees wear white. The bachelor pad where Archie awaits the finalisation of his divorce is also colourless, his windows covered with light beige drapes.

Colour finally invades Archie’s wardrobe after he and Petulia consummate their relationship. He puts on a red sweater and leaves, only to return to an unconscious lover: she has been beaten so badly by her husband that blood is smeared all over her white nightgown, like a modernist painting gone wrong.

The whiteness that permeates Lester’s San Francisco is not only a matter of decor; it is also racialised. Arising from the flashbacks is the painful story behind Petulia’s attraction to Archie. He has operated on Oliver (Vincent Arias), a Mexican kid picked up across the border on a whim by Petulia’s husband, only to be cruelly discarded later. As Petulia is buying a ticket to send Oliver home, he is run over – an accident that destabilises her already fragile psyche.

The harm of white patriarchal cruelty ripples so violently across the hierarchies of gender, class and race that even San Fran’s psychedelic bubble can hardly contain its destructiveness. In fact, the film’s most colourful interior is Petulia’s bedroom. With David Hicks as the design consultant, the chamber pops with garish pink and yellow, woven into a trippy palette that spills all over the bedding and the chaise lounge. Yet the space is soulless and loveless. Here is where her father-in-law (played by Joseph Cotten) bluntly tells her to ignore his son’s domestic abuse.

Petulia’s parting gift to Archie – a mini greenhouse installed at his window – is perhaps the most explicit evocation of flower power’s empathy. These buds, however, are imprisoned behind a glass wall. They bloom, but their fragrances speak only of the bittersweetness of Archie’s and Petulia’s thwarted bond and an endlessly fractured San Francisco.