Tuesday, September 22, 2015


I first saw Lolita (1962), Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the novel by Vladimir Nabokov (who contributes the screenplay here), many years ago and did not know what to think of it. Watching it again for this review, I'm still at a loss to describe my reaction to it. Baffled is probably the best place to start.

I have not read Nabokov's book, so I don't know how closely the film adheres to it. The movie follows Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) who marries Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) to be close to her nymphet daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), whom he comes to be obsessed with. On the fringes of this perverse triangle is TV writer Claire Quilty (Peter Sellers), who has his own designs on the girl. The movie opens in Quilty's opulent, messy mansion where Humbert murders Quility (shooting him through a portrait of Lolita), and then the film flashes back four years to show what lead to this encounter.

That Lolita is exquisitely crafted and filmed goes without saying. We wouldn't expect anything less from a master like Kubrick. Few people could move a camera and find images as memorable as he could. Early on in the picture, Humbert takes Charlotte and Lolita to a Hammer Horror film at a drive-in, and the nature of the relationship is staged perfectly with Humbert positioned between the two of them; when a scary moment occurs, both mother and daughter clasp Humbert's hands on his lap, but he brushes off Charlotte to pat Lolita's grip.

But watching the movie, I don't feel invested in it. Given the subject matter, I suppose it's damn near impossible to find any of the characters sympathetic, and while I occasionally find some elements, dialogue, and moments funny or interesting, I'm just overall cold toward the whole enterprise. Kubrick was never a filmmaker to shy away from controversial subject matter or to resist pushing envelopes, but here, apart from the setup, he seems curiously restrained, impeded by the ratings board and censors of the time from being able to depict the true nature of the story.

Let's not mince words: Humbert is a pedophile, but aside from some hugs, gentle kisses on the cheek, double entendres, and suggestive staging, his relationship with Lolita comes off as muted, as if the movie is afraid to depict what's really going on between those two. As a result, the movie feels incomplete with character changes occurring off-screen, and the tone of the film, instead of being twisted and darkly funny, comes off as more cutesy and coy.

Humbert comes off a little too bumbling and befuddled to be a dynamic center while Sellers seems like he's in a completely different movie all together. At one point, he disguises himself as a German high school psychologist, and it feels more like an outtake from Dr. Strangelove than anything else. Lolita herself is kind of interesting because she at times acts like a child and a sexually mature woman, but she feels mostly absent from the movie, someone who occasionally wonders in, and we're not sure what the big deal about her is that makes adult men fall in love with her.

I can't say Lolita is an uninteresting movie. As always, Kubrick's craft is impeccable, but unlike his other work, this is not a movie I have much desire to revisit.

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