(Adrian Lyne 1998 )
reviewed by Greta Christina
So I may as well tell you right up front: I haven't read the book.
I know, I know, I totally have to. I've heard a grand variety of excellent raving things about it, and besides it's an important literary and sexual milestone and all, and I really must read it if I want to have any standing at all in the sex pundit community. I will. Someday soon, I promise.
On the other hand...well, on the other hand, I'm not going to be reviewing the movie on the basis of how faithful it is to the book. I'm not sure if that's the best approach to film reviewing anyway, although when you're reviewing a film that's based on a book you love, it does seem pretty much inevitable. But I really just want to look at the movie on its own terms (although some references and comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version of the film will probably sneak in here and there). I'm not going to discuss whether Jeremy Irons's interpretation of Humbert Humbert is an appropriate reading of how the character was originally written, or whether Lolita was really as seductive in the book as she is in the movie, or whether the depiction of the sex scenes was at all close to what Nabokov intended. I just want to talk about whether the movie works, and how it works, and what it says and does not say, and how it made me feel.
The last question, rather uncharacteristically for me, is probably the easiest to answer. Lolita made me feel like I'd been hit by a soft, pink, velvet-cushioned Mack truck. It kept me up 'til one o'clock in the morning, talking with my friend about the movie, and about child pornography, and sex between minors and adults, and affairs we'd had with grownups when we were teenagers and whether they were inherently fucked-up or not, and obsessions both sexual and otherwise, and on and on and on. And the whole next day, I kept realizing that the bottom of my stomach had suddenly gone all cold and tight and hollow, and I kept wondering if I was coming down with something...and then I'd realize that an image from the movie had stolen into my head and was dropping ice cubes into my gut. Over and over, all day long.
This is a pretty damn fine movie.
It is definitely a flawed movie, and I should get that off my chest right this second. Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and will someone please get me a bucket so I can be sick) is not exactly the most exquisite film visionary around, and while in Lolita he has mostly managed to transcend his own considerable limitations as a filmmaker, his usual cheesy, peach-gauzy, subtle-like-a-Sherman-tank style of directing does break through the seams on more than one occasion. But while his Lolita is far from a perfect movie, it is something that I find even more valuable. It is an inspired movie.
A brief summary, for the two or three of you who don't know what happens in Lolita. Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) is an upper-class Britisher who moves to a small New England town to teach at the local prep school. While considering taking a room in a shabby boarding house run by the loud, gauche, rather dreadful and yet not unlikable Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith), he sees Charlotte's daughter in the backyard -- Lolita (Dominique Swain), a lovely, charming, intensely alluring underage girl (her age wavers from book to movie to movie, but in this version she's 14). Obsessed with just-pubescent girls ever since his own adolescence when the young love of his life died of typhoid, Humbert decides to stay in the house, and becomes -- well, what's more obsessed than obsessed? Consumed? Controlled? Possessed? --with Lolita. He marries the despised Charlotte to stay near Lolita, and plots to seduce her...or allows her to seduce him...or plots to allow her to seduce him...you could stay up all night debating just this one point. Anyway, Charlotte dies suddenly, and Humbert and Lolita begin a complicated, volatile, deeply fucked-up, highly sexual relationship, driving around the country from seedy motel to seedy motel pretending to be father and daughter. That's a rather gross oversimplification of a rather complex story, but it'll have to do for now.
The thing that makes this movie so unsettling and so compelling, (well, a thing anyway, there are actually a lot of things that make this movie so unsettling and compelling) is that it doesn't flinch or shy away from the fact that it is a story about a grown man having sex with a young girl. Now, here's where those inevitable sneaky comparisons to Kubrick's Lolita that I was trying to avoid come in. Kubrick's movie never really shows any overt sexuality between Humbert and Lolita; you know it's happening, of course, but you never see anything any more explicit than a sensual and seductive toenail-painting session. And the Lolita in Kubrick's movie is a teenager of about 16, which makes the moral problem of her seduction, while certainly troubling, a whole lot less problematic than it might be. Therefore, the audience isn't really confronted all that intensely with the reality of the situation, and the movie, while it's a fine piece of work, creates a somewhat chilly distance between the audience and the story.
But in Lyne's Lolita, we see the seduction and the sex, not quite pornographically but pretty damned close. Even before the sex per se starts, there's scene after scene after scene of intense longing and desire, flirtation that's loaded with buckshot; the surreptitious rubbing of legs, the pretending-to-be-innocent placing of bodies just an inch closer, the hungry, hollow gaze that lasts just a bit longer than it should. And when the sex takes off, it takes off with a explicitly erotic vengeance. The movie forces you to see things the way Humbert sees them; it grabs your head and points it at the intense desirability of this 14-year-old girl. And at the exact same time, we see that Lolita is a child. A precocious child, to be sure; a flirtatious and seductive and poised-on-the-edge-of-adulthood child of 14, but still and unquestionably a child, exploring and playing with her sexuality the way children do. Swain does a jaw-droppingly good job with Lolita, balancing her almost perfectly on the line between childhood and adulthood, and stealing her sweetness away bit by bit as her careless, almost unconscious sexuality turns from being a new and pleasant game into her one source of power and control over Humbert.
I've heard and read Irons's Humbert described as passive, as weak-willed, as a victim, even as having a kind of innocence (a word that David Steinberg uses in these very pages). I would have to politely but vehemently disagree. I think one of the strengths of the movie is that it manages to show both how Humbert sees himself and how we, as outside observers, might see him. The story is seen from his point of view, and yet the movie maintains a perspective as well, looking at the world through his eyes and our own at the same time. And while I think Irons's Humbert does see himself as innocent in a sense, a passive victim perhaps, a truly hopeless romantic for certain, I think the movie makes it clear that he is, in fact, controlling, possessive, manipulative, and selfish to the point of insanity. He sees himself as swept away by passionate love; but his love is the kind that wants to have and own and keep, even at the cost of the misery and ruination of the loved one. He sees himself as a victim of Lolita's coquetry and enticements and of his own uncontrollable lust; but he is the adult, he is the one who knows exactly what is wrong with a grown man fucking a fourteen-year-old girl and who does it anyway. And he is the one who continues to fuck her, who chivvies and pressures and cajoles and bribes her into fucking him, even when he is her legal guardian and she has no protection or support apart from him. Irons is, as he's so often been before, chillingly brilliant at making an audience sympathize with and see the humanity of an appallingly unethical man, and his Humbert is charming and sad and self-deluded and even rather likeable; but he's no innocent, and he's no victim. He is absolutely in control.
In fact, one of the things I like best about the movie is its depiction of the less obvious forms of control and manipulation and intimidation. Humbert is not a bully, not a tyrant, not an overpowering or domineering man. He doesn't have to be. He has the power, he holds the trump cards; he has, to be entirely blunt about it, the money and the job and the driver's license and the freedom to move about in the world. And while the methods he uses to control and manipulate and have his way with Lolita are subtle and genteel, they are none the less powerful for being so.
There's a zillion examples of these subtle forms of control, and I'd love to talk about them all if I had time and space; but one in particular is rising to mind. The first time Humbert and Lolita have sex, she thinks her mother is still alive. She thinks the two of them are being naughty and rebellious, sneaking around behind her mother's back doing the nasty. But he knows differently. He knows that her mother is dead, that he is her legal guardian, that she has nowhere else to go and no choice but to stay with him. And he doesn't tell her. He doesn't tell her that her mother is dead; in fact, he lies outright and tells her she's sick in the hospital. He knows that Lolita is under his power, legally and financially and in almost every other way...but Lolita doesn't know that. He holds that information from her until after they've already had sex, after they've already taken the step from flirtation and desire into actual, seriously taboo, questionably-consensual-at-best, real life sex. She has no idea how much power he has over her when she first fucks him; and by withholding that information, information that might well have made her act differently, Humbert is exerting a potent, serious, extremely manipulative form of control and dominance over her.
But the movie doesn't set it up as a simple, obvious, no-question molestation. And I think it is better because of it. Lolita is a flirt, she is seductive, and at least on some level, she not only consents to sex with Humbert but actually initiates it. (The sexual chemistry between Irons and Swain, by the way, is high and vivid and strong, phenomenally and unsettlingly so.) And oddly enough, I think this makes for a stronger and more valuable ethical stance. It's absurdly obvious that raping children against their will is wrong; in fact, the word "wrong" is a grotesque understatement of the case. But even though Lolita is horny and sexually curious, wants sex, is attracted to Humbert and aggressively acts on that attraction, the movie makes it clear that it is still deeply and profoundly unethical for him either to seduce her or to allow himself to be seduced by her. It is a less obvious moral, but it is nevertheless, and maybe even especially, a more important one. And by going for the less obvious moral, by insisting that we recognize Lolita's sexuality and Humbert's humanity, by stubbornly maintaining that power does not always come from the barrel of a gun, Lyne has turned out a beautiful, unsettling, and inspired piece of work.
Copyright 1998 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.
Note: Since watching and reviewing this movie, I have, in fact, read Lolita. It hasn't changed my opinion of the movie.