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Lolita (1962)

 

Actually, Kubrick asked himself WHY he made it...
Actually, Kubrick asked himself WHY he made it...

Genre: Drama Romance

Starring: James Mason (The Reckless MomentA Star Is Born), Sue Lyon (The Night of the IguanaAlligator)

Directed By: Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork OrangeDr. Strangelove)

Overview: When a college professor falls in love with a 14 year-old, he goes to extreme lengths to be with her.

We all know that expectations can do a lot to ruin an experience. Lolita, is sadly one of the films that will, for me, forever be an expectation unfulfilled. It’s one of those stories I’ve known about forever, directed by one of the masters of cinema about a compelling, taboo subject. Entering into Kubrick’s Lolita this way, I should have known my expectations were too high. But I am not to blame, not do I entirely blame Kubrick. It is Vladimir Nabokov who wrote the source material, and I dare point a finger at each and every one of his tainted characters - real and multi-dimensional as they may be - for the experience that is Lolita… and let’s not forget that in 1962, the Hays Code stripped the film of nearly every sexual element, making whatever forbidden relationship existed in the novel downright confusing on the censored screen.

After Lolita’s opening credits, where the toes of a young girl are being delicately painted, we are introduced to my least favourite of filmic devices: the bookend. We begin at the end, with a hungover Clare Quilty (the obviously ad-libbing, silly-voiced Peter Sellers) being accosted at gunpoint by Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason). Clare tries to shrug off the pistol, but it is quickly apparent that Humbert is not to be taken lightly. From here we learn about Humbert’s singular passion: his love for Lolita. We flash back to four years before, when French literature Prof. Humbert visits the home of Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) looking for lodging. When she shows him the garden, he sees a stunning vision of youth and beauty sunbathing in a bikini, the 14 year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon). He immediately agrees to renting the room in hopes of being near the girl. She also just so happens to be coquettish herself, flirting and making her own advances upon the middle-aged professor. Her mother, Charlotte, is a desperate widow and occupies Humbert’s time with herself, tirelessly coming onto him whenever she can. Eventually she sends Lolita off to sleepaway camp for the summer in order to have Humbert all to herself, writing him a love letter asking him to marry her. In one of the better scenes in Lolita, Humbert laughs uproariously as he mockingly reads aloud the words Charlotte has written. These things are not enough to deter Humbert. In hopes of seeing Lolita again upon her return from camp, he marries Charlotte and plays the good husband. Then, when Charlotte drops the news that Lolita will be sent off to boarding school rather than returning home in September, tensions flare and the truth comes out. After some epic drama, we watch as Humbert dotes on the young Lolita and the (maybe?) sexual romance that develops between them.

Oh, joy. Another Peter Sellers scene.
Oh, joy. Another Peter Sellers scene.

What stands out most in Lolita is James Mason’s acting, but there’s not much else to keep it together and sadly that’s not enough to carry a film, no matter how interestingly perverse and impassioned he is. I’ll add that Shelley Winters’ role is debatably perfect. I say ‘debatably’ because I’ve only ever seen Shelley in the roles of histrionic, juvenile twits, and she does that same annoying thing here too... albeit perfectly. But that’s my issue with the entire film, where my previous Nabokov-blaming expectations come in. I expected Lolita to be the story of a man helpless to resist the subtle advances of a young nymphette, that whatever this strong-willed yet susceptible man did to distance himself from the vixen’s wiles was for naught and he could do nothing but suffer the fate that hovered like a cloud overhead. The story we witness is exactly the opposite. Humbert connives and lasciviously seeks out a thing he knows is wrong. Whenever roadblocks are thrown up around him, he hurts those around him to get to his selfish goal: to bed a 14 year-old girl. He’s not a victim in any sense of the word - well not until Lolita burrows her little claws into him, but rather than inspiring pity, it feels deserved. For her part, yes, Lolita is a vision of perfect-skinned youth, but she is not this virginal chaste symbol of purity. She’s a downright tramp-vamp, but without the subtlety of adulthood. She’s an insolent, gum-popping princess who deserves a slap more than a kiss. I was not a fan of the annoyance that was the entirety of Charlotte’s whiney, clingy, pathetic character, but she was not as despised as much as Clare Quilty. Kubrick let Peter Sellers played Clare like a buffoon in every scene he was in, whether immaturely negotiating with an armed assailant in wackitty-shmackity moronic voices, or costumed up for an elaborate ruse, spouting purile lines that wasted my time. Not a single character appealed to me. Then, when the subject matter began to touch on the racy, along came the hack job that was the censorship board, forbidding scenes to the point that if Kubrick had known the restrictions imposed on him beforehand, he never would have made Lolita in the first place. Those holes are not only apparent, but they invite inappropriate and confusing plot questions, ones I’m sure where graphically clear in the source novel.

Today, looking back at this film, I’m reminded of the words of fellow 1001 Club blogger and critic queen, Siochembio, whose favorite director is Kubrick and whose least favorite of his films is Lolita, “It just didn’t feel like his… I have certain expectations, and Lolita didn’t meet them.” I think that nails it right on the head.

I mean, come on, what pervert WOULDN'T be instantly seduced?
I mean, come on, what pervert WOULDN'T be instantly seduced?

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 5 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 66% (Low-Lying)
Aftertaste:

I was recently discussing Peter Sellers and Kubrick with a film friend. He enlightened me to the fact that Kubrick found Sellers so funny that he would just sit there and roll film while Sellers ad-libbed. During this time, Kubrick would giggle behind the camera. Imagining that opening scene with Kubrick tittering like a school-girl makes me glad I didn’t know that going in, because I’m sure I’d not have watched Lolita with such an open mind.

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Yup.  Ditto.

 

I like that anecdote about Kubrick and Sellers.  Didn't know that.  Just the image of Kubrick giggling like a little girl ANYWHERE is funny.


I've come so close to watching this time and time again. I burned through a lot of Kubrick right away, so I've backed off from his last couple, just so I could have them to look forward to. Looks like I picked wrong and should have left The Shining or Full Metal Jacket. Oh well. I can always end on Paths of Glory.

 

Right now, my least favorite Kubrick is Barry Lyndon only because it's fracking interminable.  

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