One thing that it is impossible to deny about Kubrick, and that is that he certainly has his own style. I read both A Clockwork Orange and Lolita in 2012 and it has been my terrible reaction to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange that has held me back from watching Lolita until my affection and memory for the book faded a little. I did well to wait.
Kubrick’s Lolita is just that, Kubrick’s. It seems almost unfair to give it the same name as the book of which it guards very little of the sentiment or atmosphere and even changes the structure, destroying the central mystery. Now I’m not normally one to complain about inaccuracies to a source text, one of my favourite films is a modern-day adaptation of Great Expectations. Yet when Kubrick does it the film seems to no longer bear any resemblance to the source. It seems as if he’s taken all the character names and a few situations from the book and transposed them into an entirely different film and universe.
This is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable – it’s in places very funny. Shelley Winters gives a fantastic performance as Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother. She’s a perfect parody of suburban middle America, mindlessly dull while believing herself the height of sophistication. Sue Lyon’s performance as Lolita does well to waver between childish and adult desires. Yet peppered throughout the film are long monologues from Peter Sellers doing impressions as if this were his audition tape for Dr Strangelove. Particularly given that we’ve been shown the climax at the beginning and know that Sellers’ Quilty is the villain his appearances are somewhat redundant. The glib manner that he employs takes away from any tension that could have been built up. When the darkest threat in your film is a man doing silly voices on the end of a phone line something has been lost.
For Kubrick, Lolita is not a young girl, certainly not a pre-pubescent nymphet, she’s a teenager equipped with her own non-ambiguous libido and desires. If anything she pushes the relationship with the older Humbert rather than forcing the viewer or the character to truly confront Humbert’s perverse desires. Which, of course are less perverse given Lolita’s age here. It’s no worse than American Beauty in a way. In fact Humbert seems almost entirely passive in this adaptation, going along with the whims of the women that surround him and allowing first the mother, then the daughter to boss him around. Quite far from the tortured and scheming Humbert of the book this man seems to lack self-awareness and control right up to the last moment.
The problem with this film seems to be an overall confusion of subject and point. Is it a parody of the American way of life? An exploration of youth and sexuality? Or even a torrid love affair that happens to have an age difference? With such questions, interspersed with awkward comedic turns Lolita leaves the viewer ultimately unsatisfied and with questions about the film, rather than about the film’s message.
- Entertainment: 2/5
- Artistic: 2/5
- Intellectual: 2/5