Lolita is one of those very loaded names that bring up very strong connotations. Almost anybody will think of an underage girl having a sexual relationship with a much older man and nobody would use that name except to bring up that specific association. I never saw “Lolita”, the movie, before, but I knew exactly what a Lolita is.
I have mentioned before that to me true horror is abuse of children and pedophilia is one of the worst kinds of abuse. Knowing that “Lolita” would very much be about pedophilia I was not exactly looking forward to this movie. However, Stanley Kubrick is usually good and if anybody can get away with it, he is the man.
He almost did get away with it.
Kubrick turned the focus away from the pedophilic elements and instead made a movie about fools. That makes the story more palatable and even fun, but it is also a very bittersweet movie.
A man with the unlikely name Humbert Humbert (James Mason) rents a room in a house in New Hampshire. Humbert is a professor in literature, British and very well mannered. Next to him the locals, living up to every stereotype Europeans have of Americans, look foolish and simple. A case in particular is the landlady, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters). She is loud, crude, entirely tasteless and desperate for another man in her life. Professor Humbert quickly becomes her target. Humbert most of all looks like a guy desperate to get out of her clutches until he sees Charlotte’s underage daughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). It is love at first sight for Humbert and if he has to work through the mother so be it.
This soon becomes a very unhealthy infatuation and when the pedophile screenwriter and local celebrity, Peter Quilty (Peter Sellers) also notices and desires Lolita, things spin entirely out of control.
I mentioned that this is mainly a movie about fools. For a large part the Haze mother and daughter and indeed the entire community play the roles as fools. Humbert does not go so far as to mock them, but he does not have to. Next to him they all look primitive and foolish. That Humbert plays Charlotte to get to Lolita just emphasizes this. Peter Sellers with his trademark impersonations steps up the fooling element, both because he fools Humbert and because he simply is that far out. Image Dr. Strangelove appearing in a romantic drama and you got the picture. It is almost too much.
However the biggest fool is Humbert himself. He is fooling himself to think that he can have a relationship to an underage girl. Even as it becomes painfully apparent that they have absolutely no common ground and she can only see him as a father and barely that, does he persist. He simply refuses to accept the idiocy of it, it not the appropriateness. Only at the very end does reality catch up with him and as it does, it destroys him.
I admit that it is fun to watch idiots exposed. There is wry humor to that, but here it is strangely juxtaposed to the horror of pedophilia. Humbert is a sad character and Quilty, behind the crazy stunts, is quite a monster. I am not sure these are things to be made fun of and I feel quite guilty for liking the movie. It certainly walks a tightrope and I am not sure it always keeps the balance. Kubrick would later return to this awkward balance between the inappropriate and the entertaining, so I supposed it fascinated him. It certainly makes for interesting and different movies.
It is too soon for me to pass judgement on “Lolita”. The fun and the bad taste in my mouth are still struggling for supremacy. Time will tell where it tips. Still there is no doubt that Kubrick gave himself an almost impossible task and got away with it better that almost any other director would.