Monday, May 3, 2010

Lolita (1962)

Title: Lolita (1962)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Writer: Vladimir Nabokov

Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon


When anybody talks about Kubrick films, certain movies always pop up. 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shinning, Eyes Wide shut. Hell; even Dr. Strangelove might pop up in the conversation. But not many end up mentioning Lolita. And even less people mention Barry Lyndon. And the films before Lolita? Even less. I was one of those; I’d never seen Kubrick’s Lolita. That is until recently when I decided to finally sit down and see one of those Kubrick classics that had slipped away.

Lolita is the story of a man, Prof. Humbert, who finds himself falling deeply in love with a young girl named Lolita. Problem is, Lolita is only a 12 year old girl! Yet he continues pursuing his relationship with the girl. He is blinded entirely by lust and “love”. The movie explores these themes thoroughly. It asks (and answers) important questions like: Can Prof. Humbert let go of his love for Lolita? How is this relationship viewed by society in general? Is it love or is it lust? Can a relationship like this one work? Is it worth pursuing?

The thing with Lolita is that it feels like an extremely safe movie for a Kubrick film. In his films (like Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange) Kubrick was never afraid of addressing sexual issues. In fact, many times he explores them with complete abandon. He was never shy in terms of exposing humanities ferocious sexual nature. I was expecting Lolita to be some kind of a shocker in this sense. After reading about the film, I thought it was going to be all kinds of shocking and graphic. But what I got was the complete opposite of that. I’m thinking that since the film was made during the early 60’s it ended up being a restrained Kubrick film. It never pushes the envelope all the way like Kubrick films usually do. But we have to remember, this was a different era for filmmaking, audiences were different as well. More conservative, anything sexual would be taboo, especially themes like the ones this one was adressing. Cinema has lost its inhibitions, but there was a time when even talking about sex was unheard of in films. This was something that changed with the coming of the late 60's and early 70's when films suddenly became very sexual. I’m sure this type of film must have been ultra shocking to audiences in 1962.

In reality, Lolita is shocking only in premise. An old man (who is obviously in his late 50’s) falling in love with a 12 year old girl is shocking enough as it is, without the need to show anything too graphic. And that’s as far as Kubrick took the theme. At least visually. The thing with Lolita is that everything concerning the odd couple’s sexual exploits is completely implied, never seen. I’ve never seen director Adrian Lyne’s version of Lolita the one starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Frank Langella and Melanie Griffith. I’m willing to bet that that version went a little further in terms of what it shows. As it is, Kubrick’s version shuts the door on the audience whenever anything sexual is going to happen between Humbert and Lolita. For the discerning viewer, it shouldn’t be too difficult to deduce what is going to happen when the scene fades to black, which is essentially what Kubrick does here.

Kubrick doing his thing.

The thing about Kubrick’s Lolita is that the story grabs you. You can’t believe how twisted everything gets. Prof. Humbert is a man feeding a sick dream, yet he continues to push forward with his desires and plans. This is an aging man desperate for lust. A man willing to do anything to satisfy that desire. A line that Prof. Humbert says sums up how he feels: “What drives me insane is the two fold nature of this nymphet, of every nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script..” Humberts lustful desires blind him, for what happens when people start noticing what you are doing? Asking questions? How will society judge and view a relationship between an adult and a child? These questions are addressed through Claire Quilty a character played by the one and only Peter Sellers. Quilty notices something strange in the relationship between these two individuals. He sees Lolita as a prisoner who needs rescuing. Sellers performance is a specially crazy one. The character he plays seems to want to help Lolita on the one hand, but on the other hand, he appears to be a completely amoral character. Will Lolita ever find a normal man to fall in love with?

Lolita might be tamer film then what we are used to seeing from Kubrick. But that’s only because its earlier Kubrick, and the film was in my opinion a victim of the times it was made in. Yet, some things never change, and Kubrick’s perfectionism as far as image and composition goes is very much there. The film is edgy thematically, so if you can’t take this kind of story, about an old man lusting over a young girl, don’t bother renting this one. But you might enjoy how the film explores its themes so completely, all the ins and outs, the causes and the effects. Basically, its important that this kind of film is made. It shines a light on a reality in society, and I’m always for that.

 The book on which the film is based on

This movie shines most of all performance wise. James Mason is a particularly despicable character, I kind of got to hate him. Shelley Winters played Lolita’s mother, a woman who tries to earn Professor Humberts attention, while Prof. Humbert is really after her daughter. It’s a strange lustful triangle. I loved how Shelley Winters performed her character with a sick desperation, and a touch of insanity. A woman unhappy with her status quo in life. She is the kind of woman who thinks that marrying a man will save her life. Lolita is played with a childhood innocence and playfulness by Sue Lyon. Though in the book Lolita is supposed to be 12 or 13, in the movie she actually looks closer to 16 or 17 years old. Because of this and other reasons, some might feel that the film is very different than the book. My take on that is that this is the way the author of the book wanted it, since the screenplay for the film was written by Vladimir Nabokov himself, the author of the novel on which the book was based on. The film lasts for two and a half hours, and at times it’s very slow in pace. But the film is ultimately extremely satisfying and involving, if you manage to stick through it all the way to the end.

Rating: 4 out of 5

LolitaLolita, a Novel (Complete and Unabridged)LolitaLolita


Jen said...

The performances in this film are just amazing, especially James Mason's obsessed, creepy Professor Humbert. Everytime I watch this film I find it more disturbing and more interesting! The remake doesn't hold a candle to this!

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Great review Franco - I'm not a huge fan of LOLITA (either version), but the book is very good. Kubrick was hampered by the restrictions of the day, and Adrian Lyne's film had all the subtlety of a sledghammer. I was interested by your comments about BARRY LYNDON, I appear to be in a distinct minority - because it's my favourite Kubrick film. But im sure there must be some others out there who believe this to be his masterpiece.

Franco Macabro said...

@Jen: Totally agree with you, the performances were awesome. The crazy mom, wow, when she tells Humbert, "if you told me you didnt believe in god, Id shoot myself!" how fucked up was that line?!

So Adrian Lyne's version isnt as good as this one? Is it really a remake or just another take on the book? In any case, Im dying to see how that one turned out, that 1997 version has a solid cast as well!

@Shaun: Damn, I guess I'll have to make it a priority! What I meant by my comments is that (based on my experience) most people have seen his most recognized films, but when it comes to Lolita or Barry Lyndon, not many know about them, or have seen them, and films before Lolita even less!

But hey, Im on a quest to see all the Kubricks I havent seen, so expect a review for Barry Lyndon soon Shaun.

Thanks for commenting!

Simon said...

Excellent review. I especially liked the girl who played Lolita.

Ann said...

Quilty is a completely amoral character. He is like this charismatic genious in a small town, living a debaucherious life. I don´t think he was trying to help, less protect Lolita. What he sees is an opportunity to be with Lolita. It is implied earlier in the movie that Lolita and him had something in the past, they´ve met before (meeting a even younger Lolita, barely in her teens), and by the curious Quilty´s expressions, you understand what type of interaction they had. This seems to be confirmed by Lolita by end of the movie.

I didn´t read the book, probably those things are preaty clear in the book, but I believe Lolita is not inocent by the time she meet Humbert, she still is a child, though, and grown ups around her should have known better. It is a very unconfortable topic, and I was, like you, expecting something shocking coming from Kubrick, but also got to the same conclusion, the times didn´t allow it and, like you said, the whole plot is pretty shocking as it is. The "love" triangle, the lost of inocence, two male mature figures completely in lust, in a way coercing a child. One is a "normal" man who is lost in lust (and by no means innocent), the other, a calculated man, a man of world, a manipulator, for whom sex is a limitiless pleasure (implied by the flirting scene with the hotel mananger and later the "artistic movie" situation), can easly see what is happening between Lolita and Humbert.

Seller´s Quilty is an interesting character in the movie, sort of out of the movie flow in a way, but makes him a puzzle, like he is an interesting dangerous man. What an antagonist (or maybe is because I´m obsessed with Peter Sellers lately). The charm, inteligence and talent is what attracs Lolita, which sort of make her leave behind her status of victim, but she still is.

Also, it is unconfortable to have the story told by Humbert´s perspective most of the time. Some moments its seems like we should have pitty for him. Creepy.

For long I wasn´t too eager to watch this movie. The topic and the "romanticism" that I percived in the 90´s version, just makes want to throw away my hope for humanity. But I watched it such a long time ago. I´m not sure if this Lolita history really works to bring awareness but to soften the situation and the little child own experience (which is not explored at all). When you are inmersed in the perpetuators point of view only, it kind of justificies and romanticies his actions, because he is doing that for himself.

Thank you for your great review.


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