2016.51: Lolita (Blu-ray)
There is something rather seductive about Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. I wasn’t too sure what to make of it at first, but like much of Kubrick’s work the film sneaks up on you. Half-hour into it I still thought it would be a struggle, but by the end I was left wanting more.
Kubrick actually begins the film with its ending, with a rather angry Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a 40-something British professor of French literature entering the home (post-Apocalypse or post-party, its much the same thing, the state of the place) of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), confronting him about some wrong that Quilty has done him. Quilty is drunk and incoherent, and little of the meeting really makes sense before Humbert finally shoots Quilty as he hides behind the portrait of a beautiful woman, her face suddenly punctuated by bullet holes. That shot lingers, as we know Kubrick doesn’t do anything by accident- everything is carefully planned.
Humbert then proceeds to tell us his story, the film going back four years to when he arrived in America and was looking for lodging in a rural suburb to while away a quiet summer prior to starting professorship work in the Fall. He is being shown around the house of a plainly irritating, lonely widow (Charlotte Haze, sympathetically tragic as played by Shelley Winters) and about to make an excuse to leave when he notices the widow’s daughter lounging in the back garden. This is Lolita (Sue Lyon), a beautiful and flirty teenager, and immediately the subject of Humbert’s obsession/infatuation. Humbert takes the room and spends the summer watching/longing for Lolita while avoiding the advances of her sexually-frustrated mother.
Based upon Vladimir Nabokov’s rather scandalous novel, Kubrick’s Lolita was highly restricted by censorship laws that I gather rather neutered it compared to the book, but it still remains an uncomfortable watch and rather controversial. Its really a black comedy, partly a fish-out-of-water piece of Humbert’s very conservative English scholar being lost in a very easy-going and vulgar American society (at an early point propositioned by a couple who are friends of Charlotte who reveal they are swingers and, well, keen to swing, much to Humbert’s horror). Humbert only has eyes for Lolita, a forbidden fruit that drives him to marry Charlotte to be closer to the subject of his true affections.
James Mason is brilliant as Humbert, it’s possibly a career-defining performance. I always like watching Mason in films, back from when I was a kid watching his Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Funny thing is, his Nemo was more dark and menacing than this pedophile Humbert- something that might have been one-dimensional is presented here in a more nuanced fashion. Here he is funny and tragic and, yes, horrible, but there’s something weird going on, he doesn’t really seem to be portrayed as the monster he clearly is, at times its almost as if he’s the victim. What’s going on? What’s Kubrick saying here?
Sue Lyon as Lolita is nothing short of a revelation- how she never later became a superstar is remarkable, but I can only imagine that back in 1962 this film cast a very long shadow over her later career. Her Lolita is innocent and sweet and flirty and yet cunning and manipulative, even something sinister, blurring what I expected the roles would be in the film. Lyon’s performance is amazing for a girl just fourteen when filming started, and it’s the rampant beating heart of the film. There is something hypnotic about her performance that I can’t put my finger on, something uncomfortable, something bordering on noir.
Indeed it is really something of a puzzle, and I don’t know if this was deliberate by Kubrick or something forced on him by the censorship of the time. If Humberts pedophile urges are ever consummated with Lolita, it obviously isn’t portrayed onscreen. Therefore, Humbert’s twisted desire for his step-daughter is ultimately presented almost as a tragic unrequited love, his character becoming more darkly pathetic as the film goes on and he becomes the weaker of the two. So I expected one thing (a dark tale of obsession) and got something else (almost a dark comedy of a pedophile victim of his obsession). Or maybe I was watching it wrong and I need to see it again, you can’t always tell that you are really ‘getting’ a Kubrick film first time around.
I wonder if the censorship of the time muddled the message of the film. I’ve mentioned that I saw the film as a study of (albeit forbidden) unrequited love, but it is inferred that something clearly goes on unseen between Humbert and his step-daughter as they travel the country after Charlotte’s death. We just don’t see anything, for obvious reasons.
The film borders on the dark brink of something when the two are in a hotel room and Humbert finally approaches the bed in which Lolita is sleeping, but his intentions are comically thwarted when she wakes and notes he has a cot at the foot of the bed. She seems innocent of his true intent but is she? Is she toying with him? It’s a brilliantly dark, subversive and challenging moment as Humbert approaches the bed. The film can’t possibly cross that line, can it? And yet you think it actually will until Kubrick pulls the rug and turns back towards black comedy, Humbert is suddenly thwarted and reluctantly moves over to the cot. The weird feeling lingers though, as to whether Lolita was ever really sleeping and if she is simply playing her stepfather along. And then in the morning she is suddenly close to him, whispering in his ear about games she played with a young lad back at summer camp, games they too can play together, and then the screen fades to black.
I was always under the impression that Lolita was one of Kubrick’s lesser films. Maybe that’s true, but after this one viewing I have to wonder if it’s simply as wrongly under-rated as Eyes Wide Shut, another widely disparaged Kubrick film that I rather like. Kubrick really was some kind of genius, and it’s only getting clearer to me as I get older, rewatch his films and discover the ones I’ve missed. Lolita in 2016 is hardly as scandalous as it must have seemed back in 1962, but it remains a fascinating study of obsession, desperation and deceit wrapped in a mildly subversive black comedy. It doesn’t entirely work as I suspect the censorship of the time muddied its real message, but Sue Lyon’s breathtaking, bewitching performance is simply magnificent, lifting the film into something akin to a dreamlike horror. Endlessly rewatchable, I suspect, as are most of Kubrick’s films.