Lolita (October 5/98)
Lolita, arguably the most controversial film of the decade, has finally made it to theaters, and there's little doubt that all the hoopla was much ado about nothing.
Jeremy Irons stars as Humbert Humbert, while newcomer Dominique Swain takes on the part of Lolita. Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella have supporting roles as, respectively, Lolita's unhinged mother and Quilty, a mysterious figure who pops up periodically throughout the film.
By now, the storyline of Lolita is as well-known as the controversy surrounding it. Humbert Humbert, a man in his 40's, falls in love with Lolita, a 14 year old girl, and, needless to say, much trouble ensues. Along the way, Humbert ends up married to Lolita's mother, a coupling he agrees to only because he wants to keep seeing Lolita.
Lolita was originally slated for release last year, but because of a law passed a few years ago in the States regarding pedophilia, it was unable to secure an American distributor. I'm uncertain of what the situation was here in Canada, but the film finally premiered on the American pay-channel Showtime last month, and is slowly receiving a theatrical release.
Yes, the subject matter can be considered offensive. But the director, Adrian Lyne, has filmed the material in such a way that one would have to be awfully sensitive to be offended by anything in the movie. The scenes of intimacy between Humbert and Lolita are done in shadows and in a manner that generally keeps their affection private. It seems as though people were getting so upset about this film because of the premise, but I doubt those same people bothered to see the film.
The delicacy with which the subject has been handled is clearly the most surprising element within Lolita. Jeremy Irons portrays Humbert as possibly the most likable pedophile in movie history, while Dominique Swain perfectly captures the childish innocence of Lolita. In her portrayal, Lolita is a girl who is initially unaware of Humbert's wistful, and often lascivious gazes, but eventually comes to realize that she can use his lust to get what she needs. Her attempts at acting how she perceives a woman would behave are awkward and clumsy, just as one would expect from an inexperienced little girl. Their romance is actually quite charming for a time, until things start to get out of hand.
And not that a pedophile deserves any sympathy, but we're actually given a reason for Humbert's nature during a prologue right at the start of the film. When he was 14, he fell in love with a girl his age, and shared his first sexual experience with her. She died a few months later of a disease, and though it's not explicitly stated, we are meant to assume that's why Humbert developed into a pederast; to somehow reclaim the innocence and pleasure that he associated with that first real love. I've not read the original Nabokov novel, so I can't say whether or not this precursor to the story was implemented by the filmmakers as a way of making the audience feel more comfortable with Humbert. At any rate, it does explain quite a lot about him.
The only real miscalculation within the film is a scene of extreme violence in the third act that seems wholly out of place. It didn't really fit in with the rest of the movie, and I found it more offensive than the love affair between Lolita and Humbert. I've heard, though, that that same scene is just as gory in the novel, but perhaps a line needs to be drawn at what should be adapted for the screen and what shouldn't. For example, I am sure the love scenes between Lolita and Humbert were quite graphic in the book, but, obviously, the filmmakers chose to omit that from the film. So why stain the picture with a scene that would be more at home in a Paul Verhoeven flick?
Anyway, that is a very minor quibble. If you can look past all the controversy and the repugnant storyline, you'll find that Lolita is one of the best films of the year. It's beautifully shot, and all the performances hit just the right notes.