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Director Adrian Lynn (Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ weeks, Indecent Proposal) is no stranger to stories with perverse sexual content. His presentation of the story does the book justice although certain interpretations may not have been what Nabokov had in mind. Lynn gives us a presentation that is very sympathetic to Humbert. Nabokov's Humbert was very complex, partly a victim of his fixation on young girls, partly a sexual predator and partly a hopeless romantic. Nabokov's Lolita was extremely innocent, just approaching the threshold of sexual curiosity and urges, more playful than consciously provocative. While Nabokov hints at a mutual seduction, he leans far more heavily towards Humbert as the cause of the events even though Humbert is clearly helpless in the face of his obsession. Lolita entered into the sexual relationship more as a result of longings burgeoning from her blossoming sexuality than a desire to seduce Humbert in particular, who was not even her first lover.
Lynn's presentation transforms Humbert from the seducer into the seduced, whose weakness for young girls is manipulated by a sexually precocious siren tempting him to dash himself on the shoals of pedophilia. Lynn portrays Lolita as the aggressor, an adolescent temptress who knows she is desired and simultaneously teases and entices him to do her lustful bidding, knowing he is powerless to resist. Lynn's Humbert is more of a hapless romantic than a fiend, ennobling him as a victim of love rather than the confounded sociopath he really is. In Lynn's version, Humbert becomes the fly to Lolita's spider.
However, after the initial seduction when they take to the road, the film is very true to the book in chronicling the decay of the relationship, Humbert's further plunge into feelings of romantic desperation and Lolita's shrewish exploitation of him as she increasingly uses sex as a weapon. The book was very effective at portraying the relationship as a symbiosis of two deficient beings, each selfishly taking from the other what was needed. Lynn does an excellent job of portraying that here. As the relationship degenerates, Lynn is effectual at portraying the ugly side of both characters. The bitterness and rancor that results is compelling. To his credit, he understands that Nabokov's story was more of a character study than a sex story and Lynn avoids the temptation of becoming too lurid, focusing instead on solid character development of two very flawed beings.
I must take a moment to give Lynn the highest praise for his period renderings. This is one of the finest portrayals of 1940's Americana I can remember. The costumes, hairstyles, cars, furniture, locations and sets create a 40's reality that is like being hurtled back in a time machine. The music is not just precise for the period, but it is perfectly integrated with the story. As the two travel, the music changes to reflect the region. Having Lolita dance and sing to period music on the radio is a nice touch because that is exactly what teenage girls of any era are apt to do.
The acting is first rate all around. When the film was made, Dominique Swain was 17, and although she looked young for her age, she could never pass for 12. So for the first part of the film before Charlotte's demise, she is simply too mature. However, for the road trip she is ideal. Though I don't agree with Lynn's early interpretation of Lolita as the teenage temptress, I can't imagine it being done any better than the performance Swain delivers. She is playful and provocative in a childlike manner, part pixie and part vamp. Once they get on the road, Swain hits stride with a performance that is almost a force of nature. She is powerful and intense, effortlessly moving back and forth between sweet innocence and the emotional torrent typified by the `murder me' scene. It is an outstanding performance with depth and breadth that is very unusual for an actor so young.
Jeremy Irons is wonderful as Humbert, giving him as amiable a personality as one could possibly imagine for a character with such vile intentions. Irons injects a good deal of wry humor into the part in addition to giving Humbert an almost quixotic romantic quality. Melanie Griffith is just the wrong actress to play Charlotte. She looks nothing like the portly and plain character described in Nabokov's book. Though her acting is fine and she is appropriately obsequious, she is far too attractive to be the repulsive troll Humbert despised. It takes away from Humbert's desperation because it hardly seems like a great sacrifice to have married Charlotte to be near Lolita.
Frank Langella (Dracula) is more obnoxious than mysterious as Quilty, making the audience want to exhort Humbert to pull the trigger as he confronts Quilty with the revolver. Again, I think this is probably Lynn's doing since his vision is clearly that of a Humbert sympathizer.
This is a fine film with great production values, terrific performances and a classic story. I feel that it surpasses Kubrik's adaptation in its ability to capture many of the finer points of Nabokov's book, even though Nabokov collaborated on the Kubrik film. I rated it an 8/10. It is definitely worth digging out of the rental stacks.
With Kubrick's, the only real problem is that it's not Nabokov. James Mason's performance contains the core of an accurate portrayal of Humbert, and he's often moving. But Sue Lyon was too old for her part and Sellers' Quilty is an altogether different conception from the author's (not that he isn't lots of fun). The film also suffers from having been filmed in the UK. Nabokov had a complex vision of America - vast, tacky, seductive, and grindingly mundane all at the same time - and this just can't be conveyed in a studio and with a few well-chosen locations.
That's where Lyne's version excels. His compositions (or his cinematographer's) are indeed beautiful to look at, and (I think) capture suburban and roadside America very much the way Humbert would have experienced them. Irons is fine as Humbert, although the typecasting was initially painful to contemplate, and Swain is a vast improvement over Lyon as young Dolores: still a bit too old for the part (an inevitable problem, perhaps, for anyone who wants to film this book), but her intelligent performance makes up for this. Despite his cheesy reputation, Lyne wisely refrains from making his Lolita a teenage bombshell, something the more artistic Kubrick couldn't resist.
Again, however, the problem is Quilty. Both directors obviously felt compelled to render in three dimensions a character who is one of Nabokov's phantoms: Does he really exist? Who is he and what do we know about him, outside of Humbert's increasingly paranoid imaginings? Can we trust anything at all that's said about him in this book? I expect that Nabokov himself regretted having to bring Quilty out of the shadows at all for the denouement.
Sellers carried off the role with style, making you forget for a moment that his routines seem to have wandered in from another film. Lyne turns the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty (there is no flashback framing device, as in Kubrick) into pure Grand Guignol, and so we have to endure watching poor, paunchy Frank Langella running down a hallway of his ridiculously overstuffed house, his bathrobe falling open to reveal his endowments to our embarrassed gaze before being blown away Dirty Harry-style by the avenging Humbert. A major wrong note to say the least.
So Quilty, in the end, defeats both of Nabokov's filmic approximators. But if you love the book, see both movies: Kubrick and Lyne each capture different aspects of the master's great story in valuable ways, and the new Lolita is clearly Lyne's best work yet, proving that a great novel can inspire excellent filmmaking, if not guarantee an "ideal" adaptation.
What we really need now, however, is not a third version of Lolita, but finally, a filming of Lolita: A Screenplay. Nabokov had fun writing this, and any fan of his should read his script as well. Wouldn't you like to see a move of Lolita in which Humbert, searching through the woods for his Lo, encounters a butterfly collector named Vladimir Nabokov? Of course you would!
Lyne's movie is at once haunting, compelling, and beautifully photographed. For all the controversy, it is a mature, reflective, and subtle film. "Lolita" is a challenging piece of work that sublimely reflects the pathos of the story and manages to retain bits of the complex humor of Nabokov. This "Lolita" abandons the notion of being a complete social satire and works as an essentially dramatic portrayal of a doomed, inappropriate romance that is ultimately a sad, tragic tale.
The performances are remarkable, especially those of Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain. Irons is utterly perfect as the ill-fated wretch, Humbert Humbert. So understated but evocative with every move and gesture, he is the definitive Old-World European whose obsession bristles beneath his timorous demeanor. He evokes an incredible amount of sympathy for the character. Swain delivers an on-target portrayal of the flowering nymphet who toys with her burgeoning sexuality but hasn't overcome her fundamental brattiness. Swain elicits both allure and pity as the wayward character whose immaturity in mindset and behavior does not excuse her complicity in her affairs. Despite what some critics may have written, Melanie Griffith is fine in the small role as Lolita's overbearing mother. She is comically obtuse, and her veneer hits all the right, grating notes. Frank Langella rounds out the cast as the mysterious Quilty. He is appropriately shady, vague, and sinister when he appears from time to time, slowly revealing himself.
This is a real winner on many levels and should be up for several awards including best picture, director, actor, actress, and adapted screenplay. Showtime should be congratulated for its smart acquisition. I hope the movie finds its way to the largest possible audience.
The casting is excellent. Jeremy Irons proved to be a much better choice than James Mason was in Kubrick's version. Irons delivers probably one of his best performances as he portrays the tragic character of Humbert Humbert. Iron's voice overs help us get into the mind of Humbert and understand his thoughts and actions. Dominique Swain is excellent as Lolita. She is the perfect nymphet. Young and innocent, but vulgar and crude at the same time. Frank Langella as Clare Quilty is a little bit "too mysterious" and he probably should've been a bit funnier, as his character was in Nabokov's book.
The final reason why this movie is better than its predecessor is its photography. The colors are just amazing. They actually seem to follow the mood of the story - from excitingly colorful to tragically dark.
I'm going to keep this user comment rather short. I could compare it to Kubrick's version some more, but it's easier if you just read my comment for Kubrick's "Lolita".
The highlight of the movie is definitely the last scene in which Humbert surrenders to the police - he stands on the top of a hill, listens to the voice of children playing and expresses his remorse for ruining Lolita's life. In this one scene, Lyne managed to capture the whole point of the book that Kubrick totally missed in his movie.
The movie is a perfect 10. Just please go see it without any prejudice.
1. Quilty: Of all the things I did not like about the Kubrick version, it was Peter Sellers' quirkily irritating and totally unclear portrayal of this jerk. The latest version completely downplays the character, other than to show that he is a dark, mysterious, monstrous person who keeps showing up in the shadows. Also, it finally clarifies that Quilty is the very worst of Humbert... It is Humbert without a soul, conscience or any redeeming quality. It becomes clear that he is truly a monster, and makes Humbert look almost saintly by comparison.
2. Humbert and Lolita: While I enjoyed the chemistry between James Mason and Sue Lyon immensely, the chemistry between Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain is ten times better. This is due mostly to Swain, who basically portrays a part of herself. Her teasing and her battles with Irons are priceless and extremely believable. Also, the Sue Lyon version showed Humbert going after an older teen, not as repugnant as the Dominique Swain version showing Humbert going after an actual underaged teen. Also, in this version, most of the movie is about Humbert and Lolita, and their adventures, misfortunes and run from the law.
3. Humbert himself: For the first time, we see the reason for his obsession, and it isn't entirely pedophilia, as in the case of Quilty. Irons is given many additional scenes to show the conflict between his better nature and his pedophile nature, to show that he understands that what he is doing is not only wrong but will be his downfall.
4. The ending: I prefer the way it ended so much more in this later version. First, Quilty finally, for the first time, comes out of the shadows, and we see him for his repulsive self. Sellers' portrayal was too offbeat to allow us to despise this guy as he should be despised. Also, the final "fini" is so downbeat so as to let you know in no uncertain terms that you have just witnessed a multiple tragedy.
Adrian Lyne did an excellent job of directing, and the music of Ennio Morricone was a great help to the also excellent cinematography.
I generally prefer this Lolita to Kubrick'e version, but both versions raise an interesting question.
It is a presumption of cinema that any novel can be satisfactorily filmed. Lolita casts doubt on this.
The problems can be illustrated by a small, but crucial, change that both films make to the book. When Humbert first meets Lolita she is 12. In the movies she is 14 and is played by actresses who were 15 and 16 respectively.
Objectively, this change shouldn't matter: under age is under age. In practice it does. When you see a 14 or 15 year-old, you can see the woman she is about to become. When you see a 12 year-old you can only see the child. Raising Lolita's age makes Humbert seem less perverse than Nabokov intended and James Mason and Jeremy Irons both make him too sympathetic.
All Nabokov needed to write Lolita was a typewriter and some paper. To film it, Kubrick and Lyne needed a young actress. Jodie Foster, Nathalie Portman and Lindsay Lohan all show that it would have been possible to find a 12 year-old actress good enough to carry the movie - but should she be asked to? If it was absolutely necessary to have a 12 year-old in order to make this movie, then most people would say: "Don't make it then".
But this is only part of a wider issue.
Nabokov wanted to put readers inside the head of a paedophile without them endorsing his actions: empathy doesn't necessarily imply sympathy. His first attempt was The Enchanter (which gave us the word nymphet). It was written in the third person. Nabokov was unhappy with it and it was only published after his death.
Lolita was written in the first person and that changed everything.
The book is Humbert's own testimony. He wants to present himself as a sensitive aesthete: a romantic lost soul surrounded by dull, uncomprehending Philistines. He charts his seedy obsession in elaborate, over-ripe 'poetic' prose, trying to draw the reader into his self-delusion, but we soon come to doubt the truth of what he is telling us. He can't help letting us see through his self-serving narrative to glimpse the murky reality that lurks beneath. Lolita is in real distress and is being profoundly corrupted by this unhealthy relationship.
Humbert's nymphet fantasy soon starts to crumble before the reality of a troubled, wilful, increasingly manipulative child. Then he finds himself haunted by the ominous shadow of Clare Quilty, who we come to realise is his dark alter ego (Humbert's doubled name is a fairly obvious clue to Nabokov's intentions). Humbert is the doomed romantic he wants to be seen as: Quilty is the evil sexual predator he really is. Inevitably, it is Quilty that wins the battle for Lolita.
Eventually, Humbert emerges from his pubescent fixation and has a relationship with an adult woman, so when he finally meets Lolita again he is able to see (and love) her as a real person. But it is too late. At this point, there is nothing left for him to do but finally kill off his evil doppelganger and then die himself.
The point of Lolita, therefore, is not just in the the events it depicts, but in the particular way it depicts them. It is not only a story: it is a specific literary device. I think this presents an insoluble problem for a film-maker.
I doubt if there is a cinematic equivalent to Nabokov's mendacious first person narrative. Cinema only really works in the third person and is a very literal medium: 'the camera doesn't lie'. When Hitchcock used a misleading flashback in Stage Fright people were outraged and even film critics, who should have known better, complained about the deception.
Kubbrick and Lyne can both show us that the real Lolita is a far cry from Humbert's idealised nymphet but we are always seeing the disturbing reality itself, rather than that reality filtered through the haze of Humbert's prevarications.
Kubrick tried to defuse the problem by playing up the humour. The first hour, in which Shelley Winters's Charlotte vamps the stiff, repressed Humbert to his considerable discomfort, mines the humour of embarrassment. Then Kubrick lets Peter Sellers loose to do a series of virtuoso comic turns. They are great, but overload the picture. Kubrick's Humbert is constantly being harried and badgered and in the end is less a sexual predator than a hapless victim. I don't think the movie works and Kubrick seemed to agree. He often talked about remaking it.
Adrian Lyne uses the voice-over to give us more of Humbert's oily verbosity and he can be much more frank about the true nature of this deplorable relationship. But, again, we are spectators of events as they actually occur, rather than as Humbert wants us to see them, and the greater frankness only compounds the problems. Although his version is better in many respects than Kubrick's, it is even more uncomfortable to watch.
Because of the nature of the medium in which they were working, Kubrick and Lyne both ended up making The Enchanter, not Lolita.
I am not suggesting that it was wrong to make these movies. Film-makers should be free to tackle any subject that intrigues them - and it is not a crime to fail. It is just that the problems inherent in some books are so great it is unlikely there will be any solutions to them. Perhaps there are some challenges that film-makers should just decline.
I suspect Lolita is one of them.
In this film, everything makes sense, exactly the opposite of the reason the book exists. This is a beautiful film, with lovely detailed cinematography, good acting and great score, and all to solidify something that Nabokov created such that it could not be so. I believe that Peter Greenaway could make a good film of Lolita, and that he would have the courage to make it confusing and unerotic and unresolved. Why does Dolores' fate have to change in the film's epilogue? Because it ties up every last loose end. On Christmas Day no less!
(The real scandal is not that audiences/censors are shocked by prurient subjects, but that they take one of the greatest literary achievements ever and make it "explainable." Is this the only thing we can accept?)
But take the film on its own presumption that the book's story is what matters. This Lolita is too old, too pretty and sexy, too controlling. Irons is clearly narrowly channeled here and he is smart enough to know it: his frustration with the unimaginative stance of the film translates to a frustrated Humbert. I think Melanie is just right (just because HH calls her a cow means nothing). HH's violence with his previous wife should have been mentioned; her running away with the Russian cabbie is as much a setup for the Lolita fixation as the childhood dalliance, and better justifies the angst of loss. There should have been a few butterflies, and some explanation about the play: that it was written to allude to that first night at the hotel.
I highly recommend the audio tape version of Lolita. It is read by (guess...) Jeremy Irons! What he brings to the audio tape is the voice and phrasing of a man in a cell continually going over things in his own mind, embellishing and exaggerating and confusing and speculating and sometimes not at all sure about any of it. He brings this same voice to the voiceovers in the film, but it conflicts with the images which purport to represent a narrative stance of "real truth".