Tuesday, February 21, 2012

100 Movies - No. 53: Lolita

53. Lolita (1962)
Drama, Romance, 152 minutes
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring James Mason, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon

Stanley Kubrick was capable of working in any genre, ranging from historical epics to futuristic science fiction. He gave us serious drama and dark comedy. Lolita certainly has its serious moments, but it’s also filled with dark humor and is arguably his most controversial film.

Vladimir Nabokov’s book was about a 12-year-old girl and would have been an even more controversial film if Kubrick had kept Lolita at that age. In the film, Lolita (Lyon) is a 14-year-old and it changes the overall tone somewhat.

Professor Humbert Humbert (Mason) is a British author looking for a home in New Hampshire. He visits Charlotte Haze (Winters) who is looking to rent a room. Humbert is on the verge of leaving and looking elsewhere, but sees her daughter, Lolita, sunbathing in the garden. He decides to stay and becomes obsessed with her. From his viewpoint, Lolita is flirting with him. She kisses him and plays with her hula hoop right in front of him. Meanwhile, Charlotte is hoping to start a relationship of her own with Humbert and doesn’t notice the attention he gives Lolita.

Humbert’s obsession grows and he keeps a secret journal about his feelings, but he’s dismayed when Charlotte sends Lolita to summer camp 200 miles away. Charlotte then writes a letter to Humbert declaring her love for him and issues an ultimatum. She tells him to leave, or stay and marry her. He finds the letter hilarious and has no interest in her, but marries her to be close to Lolita. This act shows the extent of his obsession.

After the marriage, Charlotte decides to send Lolita to boarding school. Humbert fantasizes about killing her and spending the rest of his life with Lolita. Charlotte discovers his diary and true feelings and decides that she can’t live with the knowledge, leaving Humbert to pursue his plan.

Another key character is that of Clare Quilty (Sellers). The opening scene of the film shows Humbert tracking down Quilty and shooting him. The remainder of the film shows the events leading up to Quilty’s murder. Sellers plays the part well and tries to manipulate Humbert by pretending to be several different people. In Dr. Strangelove, the characters he portrays actually are separate individuals, but that’s not the case here. Sellers writes plays and wants Lolita to appear in one, but seems to have an ulterior motive.

We see everything from Humbert’s point of view and he’s also the narrator at times. Was Kubrick trying to make us empathize with Humbert’s feelings by placing us in his position? Was he trying to get us to root for Humbert and hope that he would somehow end up with Lolita?

The film is long at 152 minutes, but never seems to drag. Although we know that Humbert shoots Quilty, we don’t know why until we see the preceding events. Kubrick makes some of Lolita’s actions deliberately ambiguous so that we’re left wondering whether she was flirting with Humbert. The overall impression is that she’s not as innocent as she may appear.

The film is mainly about obsession and its impact on people’s lives. Humbert’s thoughts are far from pure. He wants Lolita and, although he doesn’t kill Charlotte, he certainly considers doing so. The choice to make Lolita 14 helped avoid some of the controversy, but this is still a film that will be emotionally upsetting for some. Much of its impact depends on our imagination and will vary from one viewer to the next.

Mason is particularly effective as the polite Englishman, while Sellers and Winters also play their parts well. Lyon doesn’t get much time on screen considering she’s the motivation for everything that Humbert does, but she’s believable in the role. 

If you like Lolita:

One of my favorite recent movies dealing with the topic of an older man becoming obsessed with an underage girl is An Education. It's an adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel and Hornby is a writer who never lets you down. He delivers an intelligent mix of drama and humor and Carey Mulligan was nominated for her excellent performance. It captures life in 1960s London and sometimes feels similar to the mood that Kubrick created in Lolita.

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