Saturday, January 9, 2010
Review – Lolita
January 9, 2010
Lolita – U.S., 1962
Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita takes place in a world undergoing immense social change. Nine years prior to the release of the film, Alfred Kinsey had released the second of his Kinsey Reports, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” which began to break down social taboos regarding women and sexuality. Then just seven years later came the FDA’s approval of the first oral contraceptive pill, enabling women to control when and if they would get pregnant. For women, this must have seemed like a miracle, like a form of liberation. I’m not sure men felt the same way, as throughout history, they have often had a harder time embracing social change. I imagine many men in the sixties clung to long-held notions of what it meant to be a “decent” woman and therefore looked down upon a woman who appeared a little too eager to be in the company of a man. To me, Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason), the lead character in Kubrick’s fascinating yet disconcerting 1962 film, is one of these men, and because of that, I have a great deal of sympathy for Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a lonely widow looking for love in all the wrong places.
It’s clear towards the beginning of the film that she has taken an instant liking to Humbert. While she is showing Humbert a room for rent, her intentions are easy enough to see. She speaks a bit too fast, stands a little too close, consistently acts slightly dramatic, and doesn’t want to give him a moment to have second thoughts about the room. Humbert’s unease is apparent, even if he doesn’t mention it outright, and it is only the sight of Charlotte’s teenage daughter Delores (Sue Lyon) – stretched out in the back yard in a big hat, sunglasses, and a two-piece bikini – that convinces him to stay. Charlotte is delighted at this of course and inquires as to just what the deciding factor was. He lies, but Charlotte is content with the lie, for it offers her hope.
Like Kubrick’s later film Eyes Wide Shut, Lolita is centered around a character who is unable to put an image out of his mind or to remember where his true priorities should lie. In Eyes Wide Shut, it is an image of an event that in fact never occurred that almost destroys a marriage. In Lolita, it is the image of a young girl, dressed in a way that he finds intoxicating, that begins Humbert’s fall from grace. As for Delores (a.k.a. Lolita) herself, she does nothing to discourage Humbert’s infatuation with her. In fact, she subtly encourages it, taking Humbert’s hand during a horror movie, using a hula hoop in front of him, and kissing him good night on the check. However, she does little more, and because of that, Humbert is conflicted. At one point, he mentions to Charlotte his concern that she is being too liberal with Lolita, a charge she scoffs at. And so he and Lolita’s deadly dance continues until Humbert can no longer stand the idea of ever being without her. It is a realization that sees him rest face down on her pillow and weep. In truth, there are many times in the film in which Humbert seems truly worthy of pity. However, by the end of the film, it was hard for me to see Humbert as anything other than a somewhat moral villain who preys on the naïveté of a young girl in way over her head and completely mistreats another woman who simply wants to be happy again. However, such feelings are hard to come by when a woman is married to a man who stares at the picture of her teenager daughter while kissing her neck and holding her in his arms.
If there is one aspect of Lolita that doesn’t work as well as it should, it is the character of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a writer for television. Quilty is supposed to be something of a genius, but the only thing we see evidence of him being is a master of disguise. While it is true that plenty of eccentric geniuses have been fixated with the sins of the flesh, for a character to be convincing as a genius, he must do or say something important or intelligent. Quilty never does. Most of the things we hear him say involve inappropriate remarks about either that “lovely little girl” or his sexual escapades with a strange woman dressed from head to toe in black. In the film’s opening scene, Quilty rambles on about ping pong and music in a way that never struck me as the way a man in his position would genuinely act. If writer Vladimir Nabakov’s intent was to make this character odd and creepy, he succeeded. If his intent was to make him realistic, I’m afraid he failed.
Before seeing Lolita, I was well aware of the term “Lolita.” Now after seeing the film, I have come to believe that the term is misunderstood. Lolita is not a temptress in the way that many of the characters that women in film noir are, for she does not have any ill-will or evil intentions towards the men who find her attractive. There will always be young women who develop physically faster than other women or who adopt behavior that wise parents do their best to discourage. But young girls like Lolita are not responsible for how men view them. Perhaps then Lolita should serve as a cautionary tale, as an example of just how mentally and morally unhinged people like Humbert can become when they don’t follow their initial impulses. After all, it is the second impulse that usually gets people into trouble. (on DVD)