3 Stars out of 4
I wouldn’t call Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita Oedipus with a twist or a Shakespearean tragedy. It acts oddly as farce, outlandishly portraying its themes and characters. You don’t know whether to take Lolita seriously: is it realistically tragic or awkwardly absurd? It was 1962, the post-war era and censorship was at a high. Kubrick had to find a way to make Lolita acceptably unacceptable. To do so, he approaches Vladimir Nabokov’s adapted screenplay with a snide tone. This, at times, raises and reduces Lolita’s effectiveness on age taboo.
Nevertheless, Kubrick is a master iconoclast, who makes Lolita an ironic pun if anything. You will have an uncanny feeling watching Lolita, a ticklish sensation as if you want to laugh at these people, this risqué premise. Of course, Lolita will discuss fundamental normativity of society but the film is striking. It’s a joke about something very serious.
We begin on a very comedic, yet dark note. This occurs four years before Professor Humbert’s (James Mason) acquaintance with Lolita (Sue Lyon). Humbert enters a shabby mansion littered with wine glasses. He is there to kill Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a writer who foiled Lolita’s relations with Humbert. Kubrick ensues farcical mystery; something awful has happened to Humbert but it is oddly funny. Sellers seems to be in a different movie here, clairvoyantly cameoing in several roles as he did in Dr. Stangelove, which released two years later. Here the multiple roles are purposeful to the story not a satirical touch of the multi-personalities of politicians in Dr. Strangelove’s Cold War context. Quilty is so out of it, he is down to earth. He clues in on all of Humbert’s games, calling the faux pas that constantly reoccurs in Lolita. He’s that Shakespearean joker that foils the tragic heroes plans. But this is not Elizabethan tragedy, this is Kubrick.
Humbert resides in a house with Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). He isn’t convinced to live there, until he sees Lolita in the garden, sensually presented in a lawn chair. Golly, she looks beautiful. Humbert’s lust is our lust. Charlotte is also a widow, probably lost her husband from the war. She is much like Humbert: alone, sexually-aggravated, and desperate. But this turns Humbert off. She’s just too much like him. He finds an adventurous side in Lolita, which he deems as a mere attraction but its actually so juvenile. Lolita is really a little stubborn and quite manipulative. But Humbert finds a beauty in that; a free lady not tied down by society. Charlotte is very mannered. She controls Lolita with various house codes and rules and always tries to remain the adult-child status quo.
When Lolita leaves for about half-an-hour of the film, Humbert can’t seem to function straight. He gets caught up in morality – what should and shouldn’t he do? He really envisions Charlotte as a “cow” (a punish parallel to a later character named Mr. Swine). Charlotte starts to demean Humbert, referring to her late husband as a better man – “the soul of integrity.” Of course, for a man, the most important part of his inner embodiment is his integrity and from then on, Humbert is ridden with a maddening temperament.
I won’t say any more regarding the plot. The remainder of it wavers like Lolita’s slick blond hair. It’s all over the place but Kubrick makes it coherent by forming a fitting and plausible denouement.
Censorship reduces Lolita in that it is not as provocative as you may want it to be. There is no swearing, Humbert and Lolita never snog. They are restrained by the conventions of censorship. But the film is meant to be unconventional, so Kubrick finds a solution. By making Lolita and Humbert completely restrained from each other physically, enforces the taboo of their attraction and makes Lolita filled with that tension that the two couldn’t love each other because it just was not right.
But Kubrick fails to circumvent the story’s major flaw. Why does Lolita have such a liking to Humbert? Perhaps she is a confused adolescent, but Humbert is so desperate and middle age that he has little virility left. The relationship is interesting to watch but Kubrick does not support the key rule of drama: there needs to be a reason for the conflict other than moving the story along. I think that’s why he made this farce.
Lolita does thrive on its performances. All these characters are totally shakeable and broken down. Humbert is as confused as Lolita that someone can die right in front of him and he could be as impassive as a shade of white. Lolita is gorgeous, compelling, but also ridiculously capricious, stubborn, and pre-pubescent. Humbert is after something so silly but so unusually understandable. He wants to find that excitement again.
Kubrick’s direction here is very modest, compared to his later spectacles like 2001 and Barry Lyndon. He leaves the film more up to the actors as he caresses the plot through a stream of irony. Humbert is about to kill someone, they get hit by a car. Someone sees a gun that Humbert meant to kill someone, they mistake for his suicide weapon. Lolita is embarrassing to watch because you cannot help but laugh. Kubrick finds poignancy in the comedic timing and questioning of contemporary manners. You will find the faux pas to be transparently pierced, in which Lolita becomes more than a elongated drama on forbiden love.
And it is long. Running at just over two-and-a-half hours, Lolita moves almost plotless and uncomfortably episodic. There is a story but the events waver back and forth. When we get to the sorrowfully normal ending, Humbert realizes that his frailty and credulousness brought him to where he was. He resorts to the worst. A forbidden love story becomes a futile revenge story. From then on, the laughs simmer and everything becomes so tragic. Love kills, they say, but a picture also can tell so many things. Kubrick’s last shot is a beautiful portrait of a classically dressed woman, but she has one bullet through her head. The distorted image is inflicted by our fallen character. Lolita concludes on a symbolic note and the farcical distractions are reasonably forgiven.