Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
How did they ever make a movie of Lolita? That was not only the marketing campaign in 1962 leading up to the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film but a genuinely good question. Director Stanley Kubrick made a decision to film the controversial 1958 Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita, a novel about a European intellectual in his late thirties who begins an illicit affair with a 12 year old girl, told in the first person from Humbert Humbert’s point of view and goes into deep, disturbing territory while he describes what the perfect ‘nymphet’ is and what he finds so appealing about them. It’s not an easy thing to make a film about an unrepentant pederast, let alone make him sympathetic and even in some ways hope he prevails.
It’s not an easy thing to make a film about an unrepentant pederast, let alone make him sympathetic and even in some ways hope he prevails.
But that’s just what Kubrick did, working from a screenplay credited to novelist Nabokov (though it wasn’t the screenplay he wrote as he claimed at the time and that claim was born out when his screenplay was later published, bearing little resemblance to the final film). For the censors, Lolita was aged up 2-3 years so it wasn’t (apparently) as objectionable for James Mason’s Humbert Humbert (with Mason being 54 at the time of release) to be engaged in a sexual relationship with her.
The story is basically that, but there is a lot more. Prof. Humbert Humbert (a name he gives himself in the novel to protect his true identity) moves to the sleepy little New England town of Ramsdale and takes a room with Charlotte Haze (the incomparable Shelly Winters), a sex-starved widow who immediately gushes over Humbert because of his intellectual standing (he is about to take a professorship at Beardsley College in Ohio) and she fancies herself somewhat of an intellectual herself. Humbert is set to run for the exit during his tour, but is forced out into the garden where he spies Lolita (Sue Lyons) and instantly says he’ll take the room.
He makes every effort to be near Lolita, so much so that he even marries Charlotte. One day, she discovers his diary filled with his lustful writings about Lolita sending Charlotte running from the home into the path of a car, killing her instantly. This opens the door for Humbert, who is now Lolita’s step-father and suspicions around him would be muted.
The glorious thing about this film is the way Kubrick approached it. He left his flashy camera moves and techniques out of this film and instead films it in an innocuously standard style. The whole thing looks like a typical 1950s film without pomp or circumstance so you can focus on the innuendo-laden dialogue. At one point in the film, neighbor friends of Charlotte’s come up to them as they are chaperoning a dance and John takes Charlotte and leads her to the dance floor saying “Lets trade partners”. That is followed by Jean telling Humbert that she and John are ‘very broad minded’. This is long before the hippie hold-over craze of wife-swapping that was prevalent in the ‘70s.
Kubrick managed to make a film that is as funny as it is morally repugnant, which is kind of amazing if you think about it.
Then there is the radiance that is Peter Sellers as Clair Quilty, a playwright/television writer who knows what Humbert is because he is a purveyor of nymphets (read: pedophile) as well. He is equally taken with Lolita and conspires to get her away from Humbert almost immediately. Sellers doesn’t take on his normal multiple roles here, but Quilty does impersonate several different characters within the film, giving Sellers the opportunity to once again show off his immense talent. He adds some much needed levity to the film, which isn’t without laughs in the scenes without Sellers. The funniest bit in the film is when Humbert and a bellhop try to open a cot while Lolita is sleeping in the bed mere fee from them. They try to put down the cot as quietly as possible, but it just doesn’t cooperate. This bit of slapstick has been criticized as being out of place, but it evolves naturally and fits within the framework of making Humbert look ridiculous in all of his pursuits.
I said above that Kubrick manages to make almost a sympathetic character out of Humbert. That’s not altogether true. We do accept him as our protagonist, which is a feat in and of itself, but as the film wears on, we see that Kubrick is making him look more and more pathetic to the point of begging Lolita to come back to him and eventually killing Quilty (I’m not spoiling anything there, that sequence opens the film then flashes back to where it all began). Here is a man in his mid-fifties who is completely undone by a girl of just 14. Humbert is like a dog chasing his tail that once he catches it, he has no idea what to do with it but refuses to let it go.
Kubrick managed to make a film that is as funny as it is morally repugnant, which is kind of amazing if you think about it. It’s not often that a film can take a wholly unlikable person and make him the center of the story without really making him atone for his sins and crimes. He also makes what could be argued as the least Kubrickian of his films in that he lets the material drive the picture without inserting himself too much. That choice that I mentioned above, shooting the film as conventionally as possible, is his joke on us all. He wants us to understand that underneath the veneer of normalcy rages things we don’t know about and don’t want to know about. It’s a theme that was returned to by David Lynch in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks as well as Sam Mendes when he took on Alan Ball’s screenplay for American Beauty and I would argue that none would have been possible without Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. That lovely, lyrical, lilting Lolita subverts our expectations by proudly exhibiting them in full force for all to see. Kubrick plays us like a fiddle and it’s a damn good tune.
That lovely, lyrical, lilting Lolita subverts our expectations by proudly exhibiting them in full force for all to see. Kubrick plays us like a fiddle and it’s a damn good tune.