Monday, December 3, 2012

14 Will Get You 20

Film: Lolita
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I was tempted, very tempted, to put “comedy” in the tags for this review of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. Despite being most definitely a devious domestic drama and a twisted and disturbing romance, there is a definite sense of black humor running through the entire thing. In many ways, the situation is so perverse and the editing so severe because of its perversity and the Hays Code, it almost needs to be viewed as comic. I’m also going to annoy a few people with this review; in the 1001 Movies blogging community, Lolita is regularly seen as the least of Kubrick’s films on the list. I found a strange pleasure in it, a bit of cinematic schadenfreude.

For those who don’t know the story, allow me to sum it up very quickly: academic and quirkily named Humbert Humbert (James Mason) takes a position in the United States. The summer before, he moves to a small town and takes a room in the home of a widow named Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). He agrees to stay because of the seductive power of Charlotte’s daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyons). Eventually, Humbert-squared marries Charlotte to get closer to his new step-daughter, and he eventually embarks on a sexual relationship with the young girl. This is pretty much the plot of Nabokov’s book as well. The only major change made by Kubrick is upping her age (roughly 14 in the film, 12 in the novel).

Of course, things are a lot more complicated than this, as befits a film that jumps into the realm of pedophilia with both feet. It’s also evident that this story is vastly different from what is generally expected. The term “Lolita” comes from this story, of course, and in general, that word is used to mean a sexually precocious girl, a young temptress. Lolita certainly fits this description, but the sexual dynamic in this film is vastly different than her pursuing him exclusively. Humbert is smitten with the girl on his first viewing of her, lounging in the garden in a bikini.

What’s also evident here, and it’s one of the more effective aspects of the film, is just how vapid Lolita really is. That might be overstating it a bit—ecept for her sexual aggression and evident experience, Lolita is a pretty typical 14-year-old girl. She’s interested in movie stars and popular songs and has a habit of constantly popping her gum. A great deal of the film’s humor comes from this juxtaposition—the distinguished Humbert contrasted with the incredibly average and banal Lolita.

Thrown into this mix is the character of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a twitchy, obscene playwright who evidently develops the same obsession for young Lolita as Humbert. Quilty appears throughout the film—before Humbert’s arrival, he gave a lecture in the town and evidently had a fling with Charlotte. Quilty, we quickly learn, is a complete hedonist in the classic Roman tradition, and one of his pleasures is the pursuit of Lolita. He pops up in various guises throughout the film.

As might be expected with a film on this topic, Lolita takes a very dark turn. The first hour, though, is darkly humorous. Just through body language, it’s evident that Humbert is lusting after Lolita, Lolita herself is encouraging this, and Charlotte is madly infatuated with Humbert. Even when the film gets darker, there’s a sardonic edge to it, mostly from Lolita herself, who is as manipulative a character as can be encountered. Character names are off just enough to add a comic touch. We get, as examples, a Mrs. Le Bone, a Mrs. Starch, and a Mr. Swine to say nothing of Humbert Humbert. Even the soundtrack has a sense of humor. The “Lolita Ya Ya” played by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra is, much like Lolita herself, juvenile, flirty, playful, a bit vapid, and kind of dirty.

What also works here is just how deeply the perversity runs and just how twisted the characters—almost all of them—really are. There’s a hint of this early on when Humbert is approached by Jean Farlow (Diana Decker), a friend of Charlotte’s, who drops a few hints that she and her husband might well be interested in an intimate get-together with Charlotte and him. Clare Quilty is the most obviously morally decrepit, but it’s not too difficult to recall that Humbert’s evident charm and polish are essentially covering up the same sin and the same obsession. This is by no means a perfect film, nor even a great example of a Kubrick film. It doesn’t really come close to his best work, but it’s also far better than his lesser films (Barry Lyndon comes to mind).

If I have a complaint here, it’s the opening sequence. Rather than simply going through the story, we get the end, or at least most of the end. It’s a cheap tactic, and one that in this case removes a great deal of the potential drama. That scene placed at the end would be a more satisfying conclusion. At the beginning, we’re not invested in the characters and thus it loses a great deal of its emotional weight.

While Lolita certainly falls in the bottom half of Kubrick films that I’ve seen, I have to say I was mildly surprised by it. This is especially true considering all of the vitriol from my fellow 1001 bloggers. Lighten up, folks!

Why to watch Lolita: It’s wickedly funny once you dig past the main topic.
Why not to watch: The main theme of this film is pretty icky.


  1. Whoa, completely disagree re: Barry Lyndon!!! Barry Lyndon>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Lolita in my book!

    I'm really hit and miss when it comes to black comedies, so if you say this is a black comedy, then chalk this one up to the "miss" column for me.

    Look, Lolita isn't a BAD film. It's just a victim of expectations for me. When I hear "Stanley Kubrick film," I flat out expect certain things - mood, camerawork, extraordinarily compelling storytelling. Lolita just couldn't live up to those expectations for me. Unfortunately, it's hard for a film to recover from that, even when it might be unfair to the film itself.

  2. Scary coincidence department: I put up a post for Lolita today as well.

    It wouldn't be in my upper tier Kubrick either, but you know, he only made a dozen or so films-so let's keep it in the book...and add The Killing and what the hell, add Killer's Kiss as well.

  3. @Sio--No shock here. You were one of the people I figured might be mildly annoyed at this review. You're right--it's not a "bad" film, and I agree that it's in the lower half of Kubrick's work. But I came into it with fewer expectations than you did, I guess--and for me, James Mason goes a long way in the plus column.

    @Chris--Saw that. I was just on my way to read it when I noticed this, so I'm headed there now. I agree on The Killing, by the way. It's a great little noir-ish number that deserves more acclaim.

  4. I have seen the Lyne's version first so I already knew the story,and the opening didn't bother me at all,on the contrary,I love it quite a bit,I think it sets the tone perfectly and it's Peter Sellers' best part in the film.

  5. I like this much more than 2001: A Space Odyssey. LOL! I think this is a black comedy, so I would have had no complaint with your labeling it as a comedy. Sellers and Mason are hysterical pedophiles--that sounds shocking, doesn't it. People are uber-sensitive when it comes to pedophilia (I understand why), so that's one reason they react rather unpleasantly to this. Still, I think the film has some merit.

  6. I agree that this is not Kubrick's worst film, although it's not a top tier one, either. My least favorite part of the whole film is Sellers. His constant mugging for the camera ("Look at me! Boy am I wacky!") just ruined what was supposed to be a truly evil characterization. Yes, the restrictions of the time would not have allowed Kubrick to be true to the novel, but watch the 1997 version for a far better portrayal of Quilty from Frank Langella.

    One note, and I see many people make this mistake, especially on the IMDB boards - Humbert Humbert being attracted to Lolita is not pedophilia. While acting on that attraction is illegal, it's not a disorder. (A century ago 14 was marrying age for women.) Pedophilia is the attraction to pre-pubescent children. If there is one thing that Lolita is, it's definitely post-pubescent. If you want a label for it, Humbert's attraction would be ephebophilia.

    I found your description of her in this version of the film to be interesting since I found the Lolita in the 1997 version much less black and white. I felt Lyons' portrayal was still very restricted at the time. The 1997 version, for example, has Lolita "negotiating" a higher allowance from Humbert, establishing that she is definitely not an innocent. Again, it could be more true to the original story because of when it was made.

  7. I used to really like this movie - even had the poster for Kubrick's Lolita (with its tagline of "How did they make a movie of 'Lolita'"). Then I had kids of my own and decided it was probably not a good idea to have a poster like that hanging on the wall. Still, its a lot more entertaining than the 97 version.

  8. @David--I can see that, but I think for those unfamiliar with the story, it's not a necessary bookend and it may deaden the effect of seeing Humbert get to that point.

    @Kim--I call 2001 a "sandwich movie" in that you can go make a sandwich and come back and not have missed anything. I think it's an important film and a better film than Lolita, but also one that can get really boring.

    @Chip--Technically, you're right about the terminology, but in common parlance, "pedophilia" has become sexual attraction to anyone under the legal age. But, yeah.

    Also, Lolita in this version is no innocent either. In their first morning in the hotel, it's she who really broaches the subject of sex, telling him that they can play a game that she learned at camp. Sure, it's never said explicitly, but it's pretty obvious what she's talking about. Sure, he's obsessed and willing to take advantage, but in that moment, it's evident that he's hardly taking advantage of an innocent.

    @Alex--Yeah, I can see that. There are a few films that I'm not sure I ever want my kids to watch, let alone enjoy. Then I realize that my parents probably felt (and may still feel) the same way.

    1. I'm anal about some things and terminology is one of them. You don't know how many times I've seen someone write "astrology" when they mean "astronomy", for instance. It doesn't matter how many people do it, though, and it does seem to be growing in usage (astrology when they mean astronomy) but that doesn't mean that it's right, or should be ignored - precisely because it's growing in usage. "Pedophile", like "liberal" and "convservative" has now started to become one of those words that is growing in usage for many situations where it is completely wrong. I respond sometimes on the IMDB boards, too.

      Sorry. Pushed one of my buttons.

  9. Well, I'd take issue with astronomy/astrology, too. One is a real science and one is a bunch of fluffy nonsense.

    The "pedophilia" label here is not precise, but it's at least in the ballpark--it has real similarities with what it's describing. And, speaking linguistically, words mean what we agree they mean. It drives me crazy when people use "enormity" to refer only to size, but that's the way the word is trending, and that's what it's going to become, like it or not. Words have definitions only because we agree that they do.

  10. I think what makes Lolita a Kubrick movie is that he does something that is difficult and he does it different. This movie does not look like anything else, certainly not in its day and that it (almost) works is a wonder.
    I normally like Sellers and I know this is about exposing everybody as fools, but he is over the top in Lolita. This is not Dr. Strangelove, but Sellers acts as if it is.

    1. I agree with that. This ranks pretty low on the list of Kubrick films for me. It's not terrible, but it's not a film I think I need to watch again any time soon, or ever.