Wednesday 19 December 2018

Movie Review: Lolita (1962)

A story of hebephilia as recounted by the predator, Lolita walks a fine line in creating a credibly monstrous man and surrounding him with competing carnal impulses.

In a prologue, college teacher Humbert Humbert (James Mason) invades the home of filmmaker Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). The two men engage in an argument, Humbert accusing Quilty of ruining his life before shooting him dead.

In flashback to four years prior, divorced writer Humbert arrives from Europe to the New Hampshire boarding house of widow Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), where he plans to spend the summer before starting a teaching job in Ohio. Charlotte immediately sets her eyes on Humbert, but he prefers younger lovers and is smitten by her teenaged daughter Dolores, nicknamed Lolita (Sue Lyon). He endures Charlotte's obvious advances while writing scandalous fantasies in his diary about her daughter.

Lolita herself is rebelling against her mother and interested in seducing Humbert as well as enjoying the company of other boys. Charlotte senses her daughter is a threat and sends her off to summer camp. Humbert marries Charlotte as a convenient ruse to stay close to Lolita, but soon realizes he cannot tolerate his new wife. She discovers his diary, setting off events that allow Humbert and Lolita to indulge their lust while he attempts to control every aspect of her life.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick from an initial script treatment by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov adapting his own 1955 novel, Lolita's remarkable achievement is that the film got made at all, given the cinematic constraints of 1962. Kubrick threads the needle by casting newcomer Sue Lyon (15 years old by the time filming wrapped; the novel's Lolita is 12), never mentioning the girl's age, and using whispers and innuendo to set up the central seductions and fading to black at just the right moments.

The story tackles issues of lust, obsession, jealousy, possession and layers of lying. Humbert is the narrator, and the enigma created by Nabokov resides in the natural willingness to sympathize with a storyteller who in this case is preying on a young adolescent. Kubrick elicits a perfect performance out of James Mason, the actor finding the creepiness in Humbert's sick pursuit of Lolita, his obsession emanating from a rotten core and eating away at his soul. The thin strands of sympathy are woven out of Lolita's willingness to engage as a seductress herself, and gradual revelations of other twisted agendas.

The character of Clare Quilty is expanded from the book, and riding on an unforgettable Peter Sellers performance the slimy artist/filmmaker emerges as the dark Humbert's even darker double. A combination of guilty conscience, dogged rival and sinister shadow, Quilty appears at key moments to engage with Humbert, offering opportunities to pause and retreat or dive deeper into the moral abyss.

Despite the rich content, the running length of 152 minutes is excessive. After the initial pursuit and seduction, the second half sags into the slow motion wreckage of a mutually destructive relationship, Humbert's incessant determination to control Lolita blinding him to his emotional downfall. Kubrick prolongs a few scenes longer than needed, and some of the shouting matches descend into tiresome theatricality.

Confronted by Mason and Sellers in fine form, Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon hold their own. Winters as Charlotte oozes desperation to find her man, throwing herself physically and emotionally at a stranger she knows nothing about. Lyon is a revelation, her Lolita standing up to all the adults in the room, strategically advancing and retreating as she schemes her way to some form of salvation.

An exploration of insidious functional derangement, Lolita is thought provoking, disturbing and fascinating.

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