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Lolita

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Lolita

Starring: James Mason, Sue Lyon
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rated: NR
RunTime: 152 Minutes
Release Date: June 1962
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Shelley Winters, Peter Sellers, Marianne Stone, Diana Decker



Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

Contemporary media are flooded with images of young, often adolescent, girls (and boys), who are sometimes not so subtly presented as desirable sexual objects. However, if someone takes those not so subliminal messages seriously and tries to act on them, he is usually branded as worst possible human scum and monster. Even worse things happen to those who try make books or movies in which they try to present that problem from the perspective of such monsters. If such reaction could be expected in our, presumably more liberal, time we could only imagine the difficulties that faced the authors of similar books and films few decades ago. Taking this into account, we must really appreciate the bravery of Russian emigre author Vladimir Nabokov. In 1955 he risked his reputation with his novel LOLITA, novel that described obsession of middle-aged intellectual with 12-year old girl. Seven years later, the literary world was still recovering from the shock when another great artist showed the same bravery. Stanley Kubrick took almost impossible task of adapting this controversial novel for the silver screen, and the result was one of the landmark events in history of cinema.

Plot of the film deals with Professor Humbert Humbert (played by James Mason), European writer who came to America after WW2. Before he takes teaching position in one of American colleges, Humbert would like to spend summer in small resort town of Ramsdale, New Hampshire. He rents the room in the home of Charlotte Haze (played by Shelley Winters), widow who is obviously attracted to cultivated European. Humbert, on the other hand, becomes enchanted with her 15-year old daughter Dolores alias Lolita (played by Sue Lyon), who seems to enjoy teasing him. After some time Humbert decides to marry Charlotte only to remain close to the object of his affection. This bizarre love triangle is crushed when Charlotte finds Humbert's secret diary in which he described his true feelings. Unable to confront mind- shattering discovery, Charlotte runs on the street and gets killed by a car. Humbert is now free to have his way with Lolita and use his role of stepfather in order to become her lover. But his idyllic life and relationship would be threatened by group of mysterious people that seem to be connected to television writer Clare Quilty (played by Peter Sellers).

Although Nabokov himself wrote the screenplay and although he praised the film in later interviews, many fans of the novel accuse Kubrick of unfaithfulness to the film's literary source. Many of those people forget that the best novels are often very difficult or almost impossible to be faithfully adapted for the screen, and that Kubrick, like any other sensible filmmaker, had to make some serious changes in the material and re-write Nabokov's original 400 page screenplay in order to make it filmable. During such re-writes Kubrick also had to take censorship into account; some changes had to be made in order to accommodate the producers and conservative segments of the audience. The most important in all those changes was the decision to raise the age of Lolita from 12 to 15, thus making her relationship with Humbert somewhat more acceptable for 1960s standards. Kubrick thus made the film more acceptable for censors, and LOLITA today seems rather tame. But the promotional tagline "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" was quite on the spot in its time, because it was one of the first Hollywood films that tackled the issue of erotic obsession and unconventional sexuality.

One of the reasons why the public accepted LOLITA was in Kubrick's approach to Nabokov's material. Kubrick in all of his classic films liked to present People As They Are, and not People As They Should Be. Troubled characters of the novel and writer's often-sarcastic observations about post-WW2 America were perfect for Kubrick's trademark cynicism. So, instead of moralising or presenting the events of the novel as mind-shattering tragedy, Kubrick simply turned LOLITA into dark comedy. All major characters in the novel are deeply tragic, yet in Kubrick's vision they are also very funny. The script equipped them with lines full of double entendres, but Kubrick also makes us laugh with his superb directorial skills. Almost any scene is elaborately staged, with great care for the details that reveal much about characters and things that they couldn't do or say on the 1960s screen. The movie takes place in America, but Kubrick used exclusively English locations. The audience, thanks to suggestive black-and-white photography by Oswald Morris, doesn't notice it, and this is another proof of Kubrick's talent. Another example of such talent is the way Kubrick turned producer's meddling of screenplay into advantage - the producers insisted that the last scene of the novel had to be shown in the beginning in order to initially show the protagonist as cold-blooded murderer and thus prevent any sympathies for him in the rest of the film. Kubrick, instead, used this opportunity to make characters more tragic - the audience know that they are doomed and all their actions have a flavour of Greek tragedy laced with misanthropy and black humour.

However, the most memorable element of the film is in its characters and actors playing them. Sue Lyon, who plays Lolita, was 16 years old during the production and that is probably movie's only major flaw. Her figure - which is quite evident in the scenes like her introduction to Humbert, when she tans herself on the lawn, wearing skimpy bikini - is somewhat too developed for someone we usually associate with paedophiles' dark objects of desire. Lyon tries to compensate that by playing Lolita as immature annoying brat trapped in the body of grown woman, and, later, as clever teaser and manipulator. Lyon's talent is enhanced with infantile, yet somewhat menacing musical theme by Bob Harris that plays constantly in background. Another great performance is given by Shelley Winters, whose role seems somewhat similar to the role she had played in Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Similarity is mostly in the terms of sexual frustration; in this film Winters is quite successful in portraying obnoxious and shallow woman, whose pathetic attempts to show herself as educated and cultivated cause many laughs among intellectuals within film's audience. Although Shelley Winters became somewhat typecast after this film, her performance is great; her character might be poster girl for misogyny, but we still pity her. James Mason as Humbert Humbert has more scenes, since the story is being told from his POV, but he fares no better in the end. Mason portrays this cultivated, mild- mannered gentleman from aristocratic Europe as being equally affected by dark desires and perversions as the rest of society. Contrast between his noble outside image (and the fact that he remains desirable sexual object for females despite being middle-aged) and his downright pathetic actions bring a lot of dark humour to this film. However, the man who stole the film is Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty. Sellers does wonders with the character reduced to nothing more than dark, menacing presence in the novel, making him vulgar, unscrupulous but intelligent and finally superior to old-school Humbert. Sellers also used this opportunity to experiment by playing the same character in three different incarnations, which would, later lead to the great multiple roles in Kubrick's DOCTOR STRANGELOVE. Many people like to criticise Sellers' multiple appearances in the film as too distracting, but his presence actually contributes to film's ironic tone.

The biggest flaw of LOLITA is perhaps the fact that it wasn't made ten or fifteen years later, when the attitudes towards depiction of sex or taboo subjects like paedophilia and incest were more liberal (when Louis Malle made few brave excursions into such dark area). However, Kubrick made excellent film even in such circumstances, and today's audience may still enjoy it, which is another proof of its timeless quality. LOLITA also became one of those great films that have the rare privilege of having been remade in satisfactory fashion by Adrian Lyne in 1997.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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