Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)

      Simply put Lolita is not a story I care for. We all know what it's about. A man, Humbert Humbert, goes to great lengths to be with a pre-teen, the titular Lolita, including marrying said pre-teen's mother. Unfortunately, his forcible nature, his possessiveness and sheer obsession lead to a path of despair, death and murder. Eh, not that good of a story. That being said, I don't think Kubrick did Vladimir Nabokov's novel justice. It's hard to take a story that I don't even like and make me pity what it's become at the hands of another creator.

    A lot of Kubrick's shortcomings with Lolita can be attributed to the strict production codes of the time. Much, if not all, of the novel's eroticism is washed away in favor of black comedy, which wouldn't be so bad if at times the film did not take itself so seriously. I couldn't really get a sense of what the film was trying to be. Too much of the plot is only implied at, resulting in an overload of fade-to-blacks. They got really annoying after a while to say the least. If somebody did not read Nabokov's novel prior to watching this film, the image they would take away of Lolita would differ jarringly from the source novel. People would probably think the novel is just as tame as the film! Although a friend of mine loved the film for these reasons, saying that she did not have to endure the repulsive sexuality of the plot and could just pick up on the undertones. To that I told her to go live in the 1960s.

   Kubrick also eliminated a lot of the novel's plot elements that could have helped flesh out the dull story here. For example, he discards all of Humbert Humbert's back story, excluding out the explanation for his fixation on young girls. I'm not saying I wanted to sympathize with Humbert (trust me, I don't); but it would have helped flesh out his character if some of his back story was given. Besides, his vileness is also tamed down in the film so I don't see why they didn't portray his background to drive home the point that we're supposed to sympathize with Humbert. In the film, Humbert Humbert is more of a poor love-struck sap than the manipulating and possessive monster he truly is. The man is like Gatsby on crack. He could have been handled in such a way to make him one of the darkest anti anti-heros of cinema. Instead of a making the film into a black comedy due to the production codes, Kubrick should have made Lolita into a film noir since Humbert would get his in the end anyways as befitting all noir bad guys. Humbert Humbert is only made sympathetic because the characters around him are just so damn annoying. The best of the worst.

   Yet, my main gripe with the film is Peter Sellers. Oh my God, I hated him! This is my first Sellers film and I'm not sold on the man. Sellers' performance as Clarence Quilty feels so out of place. The film opens up with a murder, setting a precise tone for the film. Yet, nothing that follows onscreen matches that foundation. What's worse is that Sellers' character is involved in the murder; but throughout the film, Sellers does Sellers things and assumes different comical guises to deceive Humbert. His performance is too buffoonish even for a black comedy. Everytime he appeared onscreen I wanted to say
because his character is not even that prominent in the novel in the first place. Sellers' appearance here is only a gimmick so he can goof off and waste my precious fucking time. And it veers the film in the wrong direction. This film is not a farce! Quit it, Quilty. James Mason does a formidable job as Humbert Humbert, though not as the version I had in mind. He does the best he can do with the limited script. Admittedly, the Humbert in the film I did somewhat feel bad for. If that's what Kubrick was going for, well he succeeded. Still, I have a problem with the character becoming so vanilla when he's supposed to be so mint chocolate chip, or maybe butter pecan. Definitely not rum raisin though.

    Sue Lyon as the titular Lolita does a decent job. I never got the feel that we got to really know her character though. In the novel, we only see Lolita through Humbert's eyes. However, we are still able to get glimpses into Lolita's personal misery. In the film, since the point of view is switched from Humbert to a general one, I expected for Lolita to become demystified. The Lolita in the film though is just another teenager who likes playing games, and not a girl stuck in a bad situation unable to harness her new-found sexuality. It was evident to me how basic Lyon's performance was in Lolita's final appearance in the film. Her final meeting with Humbert is very disappointing to say the least. None of the blame can be placed on Mason who still retains his desperate act. Lyon just does not really emote very well. She can play seductive very well, but when she is required to bring forth her character's inner woes, well that just ain't happening.

Lol nope
   The only performer on par with Mason is Miss Shelley Winters herself. She's the best performer actually. After she leaves, the story gets duller and the curtains could have just about closed at that point. As Charlotte Haze, Winters is sumptuously loud, overbearing, clueless and annoying. Since Charlotte is supposed to be that off-putting, I did not find it shocking that I felt bad more for Winters herself than her character. Shelly just can't catch a break. In all her films (at least those that I've seen so far), all her lovers are out to get her. A Place In The Sun, The Night of the Hunter, and Lolita. This film is especially a parallel to The Night of the Hunter where both of her characters are widows who get re-married to an unfortunate man fixated on her children. And they both get bumped off. But whereas her character in Night was boring, her character in Lolita is lively and vivacious and oh-so-stupid. I loved it. Her performance was the best balance for what the film was trying to achieve, drama and comedy.

   Lolita is my least favorite Kubrick. The Kubrick marathon just took a major dip. Lolita just does not have the Kubrick touch! Do you know how many Kubrick stares disturbed Humbert Humbert could have given out? Ugh. But it is still a decent film with two great performances, a good look to it, and a title song to die for (seriously, check it out here). Even if I had not read the source novel, I still would not think much of this film. Too many omissions and implications. Too unable to define itself/its genre. Too blatant a failure at trying to be a stand-alone work of art, apart from its source material.The only thing I still wish is that Kubrick would have gone the film noir route with this one. It would have been superb.

Ludovico Rating


  1. I can understand Why you disliked this movie, and Im sorry this is your first introduction to Peter Sellers.(Although I did not hate him as much in this role) Trust me he is way way better in Dr. Stangelove. I found the remake with Jemery Irons and Dominque Swan to be better in this because in that version they at least explain Humbert's infatuation with younger girls. He's a bit more menacing in that version too.

    1. I didn't so much dislike it as I was disappointed. My Kubrick marathon was on a high coming from Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange. Lolita just feels like a generic 60s black comedy. A 3 out of 5 is indicative that I would watch it again, although I won't go out of my way to do so.

      I'll trust you on Dr. Strangelove. I've heard a lot of good about it, most of it centered around Sellers.

      I still need to see the 1999 version. I'll have to check it out.

      Thank you for the encouragement with Sellers.

  2. Hmmm... this is a very convincing review and I can see where you're coming from, nevertheless Lolita is one of my favorite Kubrick films. I liked its visuality and wonderful soundtrack, and the main actors with the exception of Sellers. Since Kubrick was forced to use someone a little more mature(-looking) than the literary Lolita, I think Sue Lyon was a great choice - she's seductive like a little kitten and, well, very pretty. James Mason, as you said, does a wonderful job, and I liked that I could sympathize more with him here than in the novel - which makes the whole experience a bit more uncomfortable, so that sort of makes up for the lack of actual eroticism.

    1. We agree on every point (the soundtrack is amazing, as are the visuals) except for Sue Lyon. It's not really her fault. She wasn't given much to do but look seductive. I wanted to see the Lolita in the novel and got a watered-down version. But I suppose Lyon played her sex kitten part to the fullest she was capable of/was allowed to. And boy did she do sex kitten well. She was hot! Which is kind of creepy for me since she was only 14 when she made the film...

      I'm glad that the film has more charms for you than it did for me. If I'd never read the novel, I would only have had a problem with the excessive fade-to-blacks and Sellers.

      It seems it's easy for us two to sympathize with despicable characters. Alex DeLarge and now Humbert Humbert.

  3. I enjoy this film one star more than you, but mostly because of the performances by Mason and Winters. I completely agree than when Winters exits the film, everything goes downhill. The first section however is so entertaining that I have found myself only watching the beginning a few times throughout my life.

    I never enjoyed the novel so I don't have a problem with this watered down version, but I can see how it would bother you.

    I will also echo what Jason said above about not judging Peter Sellers by this film. "Dr. Strangelove" (as I have mentioned) is about as good as it gets, and both "The Pink Panther" and "Being There" are worthy films as well.

    1. The earlier half is indeed really really good since those annoying fade-to-blacks mostly show up after Winters is gone and the relationship between Humbert and Lolita receives more prominence.

      I didn't much care for the novel, or the story.

      I've just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, so Dr. Strangelove is currently next on my Kubrick marathon. I'm hoping it delivers.

  4. I am familiar with the story but I have never actually watched this film. It is a Kubrick film so I feel sort of compelled to give it a watch.

    1. It does make for a nice and entertaining watch. But much of the story is implied here.