Saturday, November 22, 2008

[Movie Review] Lolita (1964)

Lolita is a 1964 film starring James Mason, Sue Lyon, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers. It is directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the book of the same name by Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov. It's focus is the sexual relationship between Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita (Sue Lyon). It was a controversial film for its time and, in my opinion, can be traced back as the influence to many cinematic masterpieces.

The film opens with the murder of a playwright, for none other reason than "the shaming of my daughter". The plot then cuts back four years and we see Humbert Humbert inquiring lodging at the house of Charlotte Haze (Winters). An intellectual man, Humbert is taken aback by the widowed Haze's self centered and frankly annoying demeanor. His decision is made, however, when he sees the woman's fourteen-year-old-daughter sunbathing in a bikini. Immediately finding her attractive, he chooses to stay with the family for none other reason than to watch over the girl. Being the flighty girl she is, she flirts with him and displays herself as somewhat of a nymph. As the weeks pass, he idolizes her from afar, torn when she is sent off to camp. In the weeks she is away, he is proposed to by the senior Haze woman. Though he finds the thought of loving her literally hysterical, he opts to wed as it will keep him close to the girl he desires. Weeks into the marriage, tragedy strikes and Mrs. Haze dies. Humbert revels in this fact and sees the opportunity to live alone with Lolita. Upon picking her up from camp, she flirts with him in their hotel room, enticing him into indulging in the feelings he held of her for so long. What follows is attempts to hide their relationship, as well as the drama of simply maintaining it.

Despite the film's subject matter, it is hardly erotic. In fact, it is quote tame, only making the slightest reference to the pair's sex life, which we assume is constant. This is mainly due to the censorship at the time, which found the idea shocking enough to earn it an R rating. It also contains a lot of blue humor, with adults openly suggesting foursomes and other promiscuity. Lolita's Summer camp is called Camp Climax which garnered many giggles from me. Humbert takes the innocent role in the relationship, remaining stately as his stepdaughter flays herself across his chest, suggesting they play "the game" that a boy played with her at Summer camp. Peter Seller's character is another suitor of Lolita, albeit the polar opposite of her stepfather. He represents the lustful side of Humbert, which is only revealed through the latter's narration.

The film is black and white, though this does nothing to detract from the experience. This is most due to the artistic brilliance that is Stanley Kubrick's direction. The film was produced after the epic Spartacus and Kubrick just keeps building momentum. With censorship so marring on such a film, he does a fantastic job of suggesting sexuality, yet keeping it brief enough so that one does not feel uncomfortable watching the film in the presence of one's family. The dialogue is perfectly handled,as with all Kubrick films. The running time of a little over two hours seems extensive but the film never slows, that said, the American release is some twenty seconds shorter than the UK's or Australia's. Each actor does a brilliant job of their part, with the obvious stand out of Peter Sellers. Sue Lyon is fantastic considering that this is her first outing on the silver screen. Ironically, she was unable to attend the film's premier due to it being rated R. Equally as sad, the part of Lolita carried with it a stigma which the young Miss Lyon was unable to shake, her acting career sinking in the late sixties.

I feel the movie is ahead of its time in many ways. If it were made today, it would be much more overtly sexual, however I think that would be a detraction. I think it may have had great influence on 1999's American Beauty, which has similar elements, though far more erotic. Lolita was the first commercial film to make pedophilia a main element. Though the subject is not really sex offense, other than misdirected lust. A movie with strong elements of this subversion is The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon, which I recommend to anyone exploring the subject through film.

The book on which this film is based differs in many aspects of the story, or so I'm told. It reportedly focuses much more on the erotic side of the relationship and gives Humbert a reason to have his so-called fetish. The movie was remade in 1997, with a plot that stayed much truer to the book. Unfortunately, this was a box office disaster, pulling in only a dismal one million domestically. However i do intend to read both the book and see the other movie, if I can get my hands on either of them. I hear the book is relatively abundant.

So due to the groundbreaking subject matter and the artful, brilliant (as always) direction by Stanley Kubrick, I highly recommend this film. That said, parental discretion is advised, then again, my veiwing has never been censored.


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