Lolita review by Jackass Tom

Bold for the Times

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

The quote above is the first paragraph from one of the great English language novel’s Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. English was Nabokov’s third language but he wields better than most can use their first. It is written from the perspective of a scholarly English poetry professor who falls in love with a girl much to young for him; quite a racy subject matter for 1955. It’s hard to believe that someone (even legendary Stanley Kubrick) could pull off making this novel into a movie in 1961. Production codes barred most sexual suggestions in movies (even kisses lasting 5 seconds or longer), let alone any sort of hint at a sexual relationship between a 40 year old and a 13 year old (although her actual age was never discussed in the film). Given this challenge Kubrick does quite an admirable job.

The film opens with Humbert Humbert (James Mason) murdering playwright Clare Quilty in some fit of romantic jealousy. The rest of the film is a flashback, showing what drove him to murder. Humbert’s story starts in New Hampshire, where he first sees and falls in love with young Lolita (Sue Lyons) while being given a tour of the house by her mother. Lolita’s mother Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters) is renting a room at her house to any available single man she can draw into her web. She has her eye on Humbert, but Humbert wants nothing to do with her, and everything to do with her daughter. In a bizarre impulse to become ‘closer’ to Lolita, Humbert marries Charlotte Haze, enduring her possessive insecurities and emotional frailties. When Charlotte finds out about Humbert’s interest in her daughter she is riddled in self-loathing and thrusts herself into traffic (or is hit by a stray car, it is only talked about; never shown). This puts Humbert in the awkward position of becoming the sole parent to his love Lolita.

For the rest of the movie he is caught in a perverted limbo. Struggling between his desires to become the center of Lolita’s attention yet falling into the role of over-protective father, which she rebels against. As time goes on, Humbert begins to become paranoid and is consumed with the thought that he might one day lose Lolita. After being driven to the point of insanity, she mysteriously disappears.

Given the circumstances of the era, Kubrick is quite loyal to the book. The main characters had been cast very well including Sue Lyons as the young and attractive, yet vulgar and immature Lolita. The role of Clare Quilty is expanded in this film due to the multi-dimensional Peter Sellers. He gives the role an element of dark humor (something needed to cut the sharp edge of such subject matter), and shows glimpses of his ability to play more than one character in a film (which would be revisited 3 years later in by Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove). His single performances make for some of the most enjoyable moments in the film.

At the same time it’s hard to resist feeling sympathy for old Charlotte Haze, played superbly by Shelly Winters. She wants so much to be loved by the charming, yet uppity Humbert Humbert. She is annoyingly persistent; even though it is obvious she repels him. Her jealousy over her own daughter’s youth and beauty drives her to push Lolita as far away as possible in hopes that Humbert may refocus his attention. Her blind love eventually leads to her untimely death.

What the film lacks is the eloquence of the book. Told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert it digs a bit deeper into his tainted soul and conceited mind. He reveals (in the first chapter) the root of his obsession: an almost Freudian experience where he is caught in a pubescent state of love. He also explains his theory of ‘nymphets’ in more detail. Nabokov’s prose is also some of the most pretentiously poetic written on paper. He writes with an artist’s cynicism that adds to the black humor of the situation.

As sick as the audience believes Humbert Humbert is for his obsession over an under-aged girl, they must understand that he is truly in love. Even towards the end of the film, as she has grown up (or at least costuming attempts to make her look grown up) living in filth, and carrying another man’s child, Humbert shows he would do anything for her (“I want you to live with me and die with me”). It wasn’t purely an act of fetishized perversion, but love he showed for his Lolita (something that is also more obvious in the novel). Because of that, its hard not pity the state he is in, both psychologically and emotionally.

7 out of 10 Jackasses
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