It turns out that the boy is the new companion of Julie Christie, a gorgeous and glamorous young woman recently married to Richard Chamberlain. Chamberlain is the spoiled scion of wealthy jerk Joseph Cotten. Christie decides to leave Chamberlain for Scott, after Chamberlain reacts oddly to the presence of the Mexican boy.
Scott mostly resists Christie's advances, but he nonetheless cares for her, because he is a decent human being or some such thing. One day, Scott returns to his house to find Christie beaten nearly to death, ostensibly by Chamberlain. Christie recovers in a hospital, but the affair between Christie and Scott is over.
She shows up again in his hospital, several months later, about to deliver a baby. Scott is once again indecisive about whether or not to commit to the ever-troubled Christie.
How others will see it. Petulia has both fascinated and alienated critics and audiences since its release. Two famous critics were at opposite ends of the bell curve for this movie. Per Wikipedia, Joel Siegel called it "without question, my favorite American movie," while Pauline Kael stated "I have rarely seen a more disagreeable ... movie than Petulia." Apparently, Pauline Kael did not see that many modern horror movies.
Different evaluations are at least partly due to different expectations of what a film should be. Is it about storytelling? Is it about the characters? Is it art?
Petulia was a commercial disappointment, but it did get a smattering of festival nominations. Today at imdb.com, the user rating is an okay-plus 6.9 out of 10, but the 3.3K user votes are much more than, for example, Julie Christie's next movie, In Search of Gregory (1969). Not to mention Richard Chamberlain's next movie, Hold On: It's the Dave Clark Five (1968). You might have trouble finding that movie to watch, even though Lulu is in it as well.
How I felt about it. If a film tells a story, then why not make that story linear, so that one always knows what is going on. If it is about the characters, then those characters should be consistent. That is, George C. Scott should not angrily throw a bag of cookies at his former wife. Take a chill pill, dude.
So, Petulia works best as a work of art. Surreal editing can distract us from such observations as, why would Julie Christie execute a smash-and-grab to steal a tuba, and drag it to Scott's residence? Why would Scott divorce Shirley Knight? Not only is she nice and beautiful, she doesn't seem to want the divorce.
Also, George C. Scott needs to figure out what to do with Julie Christie. This is the major dilemma of the movie. He can't commit to an unpredictable and illogical woman, but he also can't stand to watch her life go down the drain.
What 1968 movie includes both Janis Joplin (of Big Brother and the Holding Company) and Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead)? No, it's not Monterey Pop. It's Petulia, though neither artist is in the film for long.