A Couple on Kubrick: Lolita (1962) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Couple on Kubrick: Lolita (1962)

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So we carries on towards the ever controversial and sensational movie, Lolita. Actually, those are not the right words to describe this movie because, well, this movie is quite dull.

For a movie that is supposed to be about the taboo subject of ephebophilia, there was not much in the way of controversial or sensual images and actions in the movie (aside from a slightly odd beauty shot of Lolita’s feet, which probably launched many a foot fetish. Gross). Then again, I suppose I should be happy that there is a lack of uncomfortable implications, but did Kubrick have to make the rest of the movie so lifeless and sterile? So little happens in this movie with such lackluster momentum, if any at all, that the whole movie seems to be more a study in meditation and patience than of vested interest.

Stanley Kubrick was avoiding the idea of a grown man engaging in a sexual relationship with a 14- year-old so the movie would be allowed to not only be made but distributed to the masses. I understand that. But couldn’t Kubrick show how the sexual relationship is affecting Lolita outside of screaming and being bored?

James Mason plays the hilariously named Humbert Humbert (seriously, who names a child that?), whose obsession with the young Lolita leads him on a journey of destruction and despair. At the beginning of the movie, is an arrogant, self-assured, and erudite intellectual who is looking for a place to stay for a short amount of time before leaving for Beardsley when he meets the overblown and dramatic Charlotte Haze and her daughter, Lolita. As the relationship between Humbert and Lolita continues, he becomes just as overbearing and emotional as Lolita’s mother while being a simultaneous father (though not intentionally) and lover. His resolve and mental state degrade further as Lolita starts to push him away, and is left a shallow and shambling husk of the man he once was. Mason performed admirably and sometimes engagingly, but not enough to keep the momentum going during the show parts of the movie.

The biggest failing of the movie is Lolita, played by Sue Lyon, because she is not a complete character. She seems more of a cipher or a construction of Humbert’s idea of the perfect nymphet than a fully formed character.What does she have to say about being in the relationship with Humbert? Why is she so comfortable about engaging in torrid romances with adult males? How does the sexual relationship with an older man affect her? She is treated as though she is an adult in a 14-year-old body, which is boring and odd to me because 14-year-olds do not normally act like that. Then again, when Lolita starts to act like a normal 14-year-old, she just wants to talk to boys and drink malts and have more freedom. The sexual relationship with the adult male who is the only other person she has in the world has no effect on her ability to make and keep relationships, males especially. That is supposed to be presented as normal and I will have to disagree.

Shelley Winters plays the blustery, pseudointellectual, and histrionic Charlotte Haze with humor, and I really enjoyed her performance. She plays Charlotte like a 14-year-old in an adult’s body, which is a perfect counterpoint for her 14-year-old in an adult body daughter. Her complete oblivious nature regarding Humbert’s lecherous affection for Lolita and his outright disdain for Charlotte (masked beautifully of course) made her an engaging character. Hell, she had the most backstory of anyone in the movie. Plus, the idea of Charlotte finding out Humbert’s true affections gave the movie some much needed tension and momentum and her departure killed any tension or interest.

Wow. I had more to say about this movie than I thought I would. I think that is enough from me. What about you, Andrew? What are your thoughts?

This has been on my list of “I’ll get to it someday” films for a long-time and perfectly encapsulates my love / hate relationship with Kubrick. After rewatching Spartacus I was in the mood for something a little spicier and an adaptation of one of the quickest reads I’ve had the pleasure of perusing.

Lolita fits that bill perfectly, trapping you in the mind of a man so enthralled by his desire that you feel simultaneously guilty and thrilled to follow him down. Vladimir Nabokov’s language oozes delight and frustration on every page, leaving the impression of someone who would be disgusted with himself if he weren’t so delighted. I was happy to find he had returned to do the screenplay, but like you I was underwhelmed by the results.

Expectation certainly had something to do with it as I’m such a huge fan of the book, but this is one limp pitch from Kubrick. There are efforts to titillate early on and the sparring match between the unfortunate side characters and Humbert are exceptionally well done. I especially enjoyed the ping-pong match between James Mason and Peter Sellers in the opening scenes of the film. Sellers matched Mason’s grim determination with a cosmic cluelessness which is as funny as Mason’s is grim. I agree with you that the only other relationship which produces any comedic or dramatic sparks is the one between Mason and Winters, who is equally insane in her own right.

Since we’re forced into a more objective viewpoint outside of the written word, those moments serve as nice parallels to the pedophilic fantasy Humbert would like to partake in. Charlotte is doing the same thing, just on an older scale, trying to relive her now younger husbands’ love. But her desire is tragic while Humbert’s is sick. The same goes for Peter Sellers, whose Quilty is no less contemptible but able to mask it in the appealing guise of “art”.

As amusing as Sellers is in those opening acts, his double-role is another momentum killer. He starts off fine in the Quilty role, but as soon as he is in another scene with Mason as the doctor it becomes grating. This is a fine transition thematically since this scene rewrites a similar one from the novel and forces us to see that Humbert’s twisted his own desire to be morally acceptable in private. But if shared with anyone else becomes a sin on the other party.

But Sellers drones on in the same garish accent before going back to scenery chewing as Quilty, becoming emblematic of the problems the entire film has. There’s just not enough variety to the images and dialogue of Lolita as a film to share the same kind of erotic dread in the novel. The film feels like someone giggling at getting away with a dirty joke unaware that the audience deciphered the punch-line an hour ago. The novel uses these same passages to at least form an opinion on Humbert and Lolita.  You are right that the movie feels like it paints an incomplete picture of Lolita, because we at least have Humbert's point of view to explain that in the book, it just falls flat here.

I love Kubrick the analyst, the subtle master of dark humor (which will be a funny claim to make considering next week's film), but this is a story which allows him to play broad in a fashion that does not suit him. I wanted to like Lolita a lot, but for those unfamiliar with the source material there’s just not much sensationalism to warrant the fame, nor quality to warrant a second look.

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Next week we lament the lost footage of what was the greatest pie fight in existence.

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I got hammered with criticism when I bashed LOLITA this Summer.

    Your reviews – from my perspective – seem spot on. That said, I need to see much more of Kubrick.

    • Thanks for the comment Sam.

      To be fair, my knee-jerk reaction when Amanda said Lolita is boring was an immediate “What? No way” (this was my first viewing, her second). It just exhausts all momentum in the second act and isn’t played up as a farce. I loved the book and making the perspective more objective hurts the material too much.

      Feel free to post up your thoughts as we go along.

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