Lolita

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Lolita is definitely not the most enjoyable film out there. It’s not bad or boring or anything, but everything about the story just seems off. I think it’s supposed to, considering what the story actually is about. Sometimes I can watch movies where morally objectionable things happen, and somehow get swept up in them in a way that would never happen in real life. Bonnie and Clyde is a good example. The film will open you up to something maybe you’ve always been curious about but you know you would never actually do, and you appreciate the film for doing that for you. Lolita is not like that. It’s morally objectionable, and while the film may not harp on about it, it makes it abundantly clear. As such, it’s not much fun to watch at all.

Based on the book by Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a professor of French literature who becomes infatuated with a girl of about fourteen named Dolorous Haze, nicknamed Lolita (Sue Lyon). He is looking for a place to stay in New Hampshire over the summer, and happens upon a house owned by Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), an insipid woman who is obviously attracted to him. He doesn’t decide to stay until he sees her daughter Lolita, lying around in the back yard. This all happened four years prior to when the story starts. As the film begins, we see Humbert threatening and finally killing Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a man he believes has victimized Lolita. At this point, we think he’s her father.

So, flashback four years and Humbert’s moved in. I suppose he’s getting somewhere with Lolita, but mostly he’s getting everywhere with Charlotte. He actually thinks it’s kind of funny that this chick’s into him. He realizes though, that once the summer’s over he’s going to have to leave and then will probably never see Lolita again, so he agrees to marry her even though he finds her ridiculous. She is ridiculous. She basically throws herself at him morning, noon, and night, and because she’s so obvious about it it’s pretty hard to watch. Plus we have the knowledge that he’s a pedophile and she doesn’t. It’s just unbelievable to watch her. How can she be this unobservant?

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She’s a terrible mother as well, and just an overall very selfish woman. Whenever Humbert doesn’t reciprocate her advances, she takes it out on Lolita. And she doesn’t even know that Lolita’s part of the cause of it! At one point, Lolita’s supposed to be a friend’s house for the night, but comes back early. Her mother goes insane, and is not happy with her at all. She accuses her of coming back to spy on them, when she just came back because, you know, she lives there. Even worse, when Charlotte finds Humbert’s diary filled with all of his messed up fantasies regarding Lolita she only reacts to Humbert’s contempt and hatred of her, not of his victimization of her daughter. It’s pretty awful, no matter how you look at it.

There’s also the problem that Lolita may not be strictly a victim. I still think she is on some level, but it’s not as clear cut as it sometimes is. She clearly knows that Humbert is into her based on what she says to him, and I think she uses this to get what she wants in other areas of her life. She is often seen eating, a manifestation of how greedy her character is. Her mother is accidentally and conveniently run over by a car, allowing Humbert to effectively have sole control over her. He gives her whatever she wants, but won’t let her see anyone else. Whenever the topic of boys comes up they get into an argument. Lolita basically has to deceive Humbert in order to have a life of her own. Eventually she runs away.

Her motive for running away amazes me. This is kind of a SPOILER ALERT but it’s sort of hinted at in the beginning. Obviously she is resenting Humbert’s control over her and everything, that makes sense, but she runs away because she’s in love with Clare Quilty apparently! I guess he’s more attractive than Humbert but not that much. Eventually she runs away from him as well, after he tries to put her in an “art film.” Yeah, I’m pretty sure that should have ironic quotations around it.

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Quilty was kind of a weird character. He sort of just pops up every once and awhile in various disguises. It’s obvious every time that it’s Peter Sellers popping up, but I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be the same character. It’s revealed at the end that this is the case, but given that Peter Sellers often plays multiple characters in the same film I wasn’t sure if that’s what was going on here. He does a good job I suppose, but his character constantly showing up seems a bit excessive and pointless. When he disguises himself as a psychologist from Lolita’s school in order to get Humbert to let her join the school play, that actually helps move the plot along but for the most part his appearances seem a bit gratuitous. It seems like Kubrick expanded his part just to see Sellers improvise all over the place, because that’s exactly what happened!

In terms of other Kubrick films, while I haven’t seen that many (only Dr. Strangelove, Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon, and this one), I’d say this ranks towards the bottom. It’s not poorly made or anything, but it just makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, but not in a good horizons-broadening way, just a bad slimy-feeling way. One of the interesting things to note about it is that it sort of feels a bit like Eyes Wide Shut in spots. In Eyes Wide Shut, there’s this weird atmosphere throughout caused by everybody being attracted to Tom Cruise’s character and him not necessarily realizing that this is the case. This sort of happens in Lolita as well, because people come on to other people and you’re not exactly sure if that’s how you’re supposed to take it, given that she’s like fifteen and this other woman is married and so on. Having Quilty pop up all the time sort of enhances this too, so maybe that’s another justification for him being there. He keeps showing up and you really don’t know why until the end. I can definitely see the beginnings of something like Eyes Wide Shut here, but I still think that’s the superior film.

I think Lolita is well made, I’m just unsure about the emotional/moral impact it left on me. The whole thing was not a pleasant watch for me and just made me feel strange. I’m glad I watched it, but not because of what I actually saw. I’m glad to have checked another Kubrick off my list, and have been wondering about this film for a while now because of Sellers and Mason. In the end though, it just made feel weird about the whole thing.

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“You look slimy.”

Long story short: 2.5/4 stars

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13 responses to “Lolita

  1. I recently purchased a copy of Lolita and will probably watch it in a couple of weeks just to say I finished off Kubrick’s filmography. Nice review.

    • Nice! I can see why you saved it for last! Awesome that you’ll be finishing up his filmography though; I won’t be at that point for awhile. Next up is 2001 sometime in May and I’m really excited for that 🙂

  2. Lolita was considered unfilmable until Kubrick took it up, but given the extreme literary quality of Nobokov’s writing it’s not surprising the film was a great success.
    It might almost be called the first big Kubrick film, made after he was fired from One Eyed Jacks and took over Spartacus from another sacked director Anthony Mann.

    Like you I’m not sure it’s a film I enjoyed watching, but it does contain some larger-than-life acting performances, my favourite of which is Peter Sellers in that strange triple or quintuple role which prefigures his work in Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, made the following year.

    • I have not read the book, but even if it wasn’t so literary there’s always the subject matter. The very act of filming would be unethical, not to mention watching it. I got a kick out of the tagline though: “How did they ever make a film of Lolita?” indeed.
      Peter Sellers was impressive I suppose, but I guess I’ve just come to expect that of him. His characters in Dr. Strangelove are definitely better though, and give him more of an opportunity to show off as well. Here they seem sort of misplaced, though he does just as well with them. There’s more to do well with in Strangelove. I didn’t like any of the characters here though, none of them, and that always hampers my judgement of the actors playing them. As usual, the fact that I didn’t like them (when I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to) testifies to their acting talent.

  3. I’m a massive Kubrick fan but this is my least favourite of his films. I think that the tone is intentionally ‘off’ but I also think that Sellers is completely mis-cast and that his character is actually poorly written.

    If you haven’t seen much Kubrick then don’t let this put you off. 2001, The Shining and Dr Strangelove are my favourites, with Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket not far behind.

    • I’ve already vowed to watch and review all the Kubrick films, so don’t worry. I’m committed now 🙂 This is really the only one so far that I haven’t liked, and Strangelove is very high up on my list of favorite all time films. It just missed out on the top ten last time I did it.
      Seller does a fine job acting wise, but I can’t get over how much I don’t believe that Lolita would have run away to be with him. Him? Come on.
      Definitely agree with you about the tone. Very “off” and I bet it’s on purpose. It’s an off story, after all. Just because it works it doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable though.

    • Thanks! I’ll admit it was a good film, but I didn’t really like it unfortunately.
      I’ll definitely be checking off his entire filmography, hopefully before the year is out! Glad people seem interested in it!

    • In retrospect? Not sure I would watch this either. Well, actually, I’m pretty sure I would because I’m trying to get all the Kubrick’s, but if I had known exactly what I was getting into that would have probably been the only reason. I was not feeling too good about this when I was watching it.

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