by Brian McKay
Ah yes, LOLITA: The book that inspired two movies, ended up in the biggest single ever by THE POLICE, and coined the porn industry term for teenage girls. I've been meaning to play "Kubrick Catch-up" for a while now and see all his films I've missed (at least from the early sixties on). Having expected an angst-filled and overlong drama about a dirty old man pining after a little girl, I was surprised to find a rather acerbic dark comedy instead. I should have known Stanley wouldn't let me down.Having never read the source material, I wasn't sure what to expect. All I really knew was that it was about an older man who wants to fuck a high school girl (thereby earning membership in a club that's about as exclusive as "Women who like to go shopping"). Although the one thing that did meet my expectation was the excessive running time, a punchy script and some fantastic performances from James Mason and Peter Sellers, not to mention the eyebrow-raising debut of Sue Lyon, ensure that there's rarely a dull moment.
"This guy is just like the old man in that book by Nabokov! Oh, wait . . ."
Humbert (James Mason) is a recently divorced writer who will be taking a teaching job at a University in the fall semester. Having a couple of months to kill in the summertime, he rents a room from single mother Charlotte (Shelly Winters), a sad, clingy, verbose, and highly annoying widow. Humbert nearly takes a pass on the room until he has a peek at the backyard. He is suddenly sold on the idea when he sees Charlotte's daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyon), nicknamed Lolita, sunbathing on the lawn. Lolita is a busty little blonde and, as Humbert soon finds out, not at all shy in her flirtations. As time goes by, he becomes more and more obsessed with her, while growing more resentful of her grating mother for gumming up the works.
While Lolita is away at summer camp, Charlotte professes her love for Humbert. When it is apparent that he does not reciprocate, she leaves him a note indicating that if he does not love her back, then he must leave, but if he is still there when she gets home, then he must feel the same way she does. Terrified at the prospect of having to move out and lose all hope of seeing Lolita again, he plays along with Charlotte's affections and rushes into marriage, ensuring his place in the household. However, when Charlotte soon dies under shady circumstances, he is free to "adopt" Lolita, becoming both her legal guardian and her lover.
Meanwhile, famous playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) also has his eye on Lolita (turns out he used to shag Charlotte as well). He schemes to get Lolita away from Humbert with a variety of ploys, including impersonating "Dr. Zempf", a fictitious psychologist from Lolita's school who has a German accent and sets a great precedent for Sellers' multiple roles in Kubrick's following film, Doctor Strangelove. The scene where "Zempf" wields questions at Humbert about the girl's "troubled behavior", which he believes is based on "supressed libido," is hilarious - as is his suggestion that he move into the house to "observe her condition".
What's amazing about this film is how it manages to make Humbert into a somewhat sympathetic character, one who is even likeable at times - despite the fact that his character is pretty much a sleaze. This is a guy who moved into the house of a woman that he loathed, and even married her so that he could get close to the daughter. Then he ends up living with Lolita in some bizarro father-daughter man and wife relationship. In most cases this would be a cut and dry case of classic predatory pedophelia. However, the character is tempered not only by Mason's fantastic performance, but by a couple of mitigating circumstances. For one, although Lolita may be underage in the legal sense, she is not a child. She is fully aware of her sexuality and the effect it has on men, and likes to play it up. Likewise, whatever transpires between her and Humbert appears to be consentual (the sex is hinted at but never shown), as Lolita seems all too game to go along with their arrangement. None of which is to say that Humbert's actions are normal, healthy, or even excusable - but at least these factors help place the protagonist in a more sympathetic light.
As for Lolita herself, she's a bit of an enigma, which adds to her appeal. Though she indulges in the usual teenage poutiness and apathy, and carries some of her mother's traits (like being outspoken on subjects that she is ignorant of), Sue Lyon looks mature beyond her years (if slightly) and carries the character with that distinctly feminine aura of mystique and playful seductiveness. Her motivations are never quite clear, however, as she seems to have a generally blase' attitude toward sex. Is she using it as a weapon, or merely a pacifier to keep the status quo? Does she feel any real passion or affection for Humbert, or is she just going along with what's expected of her? Naturally, the whole thing begins to unravel when Humbert's behavior towards her grows increasingly jealous and obsessive, in conjuction with her desire to try out boys her own age.While it may or may not live up to the source material, and while it doesn't quite rate the five-star status that some of Kubrick's later films attained, LOLITA is a definite must-have for the Kubrick collector, easily earning its place in the boxed set. Great, now all I need is to see SPARTACUS and BARRY LYNDON, then maybe slog through some of Kubrick's earlier 50's films like PATHS OF GLORY, and I can die a fulfilled man.
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originally posted: 03/12/03 15:12:07