Lolita (1998)

D: Adrian Lyne
S: Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith

The second big screen adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel has the unenviable task of following a film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which, despite its limitations, is remembered as a film classic. Not quite a secondary matter, but one also extraneous to the quality of the film itself, Adrian Lyne's version (based on a screenplay by film critic Stephen Schiff), also arrives during a long-running storm of public hysteria surrounding issues of paedophilia, so much so that its American release has been confined to a screening on cable. Your attitude to this subject, and to questions of the sexuality of minors in general, may well colour your reception of the film. But the bottom line is that, like its predecessor, this is a flawed film which is often interesting but sometimes excessive and obvious.

The basic story concerns mild mannered academic Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) whose infatuation with the young daughter (Dominique Swain) of his lonely and frustrated landlady (Melanie Griffith) eventually leads to a sexual relationship with disastrous consequences for all. A tale of moral, spiritual and physical self-destruction, it is a bleak, moralistic parable despite the accusations levelled at it. In common with Lyne's previous sexual odysseys Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks and Indecent Proposal, an old fashioned conservative slap on the wrist underwrites the on screen action and characters are eventually punished for their transgressions.

But unlike either of those films, Lolita does manage to involve the spectator in the comeuppance. Its baroque, violent finale is not so much a catharsis as an acknowledgement that we are called upon as an audience not merely to bear witness to an execution, but realise why it is happening. As the shattered and worn Humbert confronts the sinister arch-paedophile Quilty (Frank Langella) in his luxurious mansion with the intention of murdering him, Humbert endeavours to ensure his victim is aware of why he must die. Quilty, in turn, pleads that he can give him access to erotic images and even let him attend executions, just as the audience have had and are about to do. It is difficult not to feel a slippage of identification even with such unpleasant and unappealing characters, and a moment of recognition is not far away in the nexus of crime and punishment coloured by our attitudes to ourselves and our sexuality.

The novel has attracted a great deal of positive blowback both times it has been filmed, despite the furore which surrounded even its own publication. Critics frequently note that Nabokov's use of irony and distantiation makes the subject matter less objectionable and allows the reader to coldly analyse the events rather than find themselves enveloped in depravity. But, to be fair, both Kubrick and Lyne (or Nabokov himself and Schiff as authors of the screenplays, if you prefer) consciously use the cinema in particular ways to provide a visual equivalent to convoluted, ironic prose. In Kubrick's case, the use of black comedy and his characteristic clinicism produced a suitable sense of alienation. Lyne also uses style to accentuate content, though no one would claim that his mise en scène is as rich and textured as Kubrick's.

Like Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Jacob's Ladder and Indecent Proposal, Lolita is visually sensual. It offers a glossily rendered late 1940s Midwestern America (after a brief set up in 1920s France shot through sepia filters) photographed through what seems like vaseline-coated lenses by director of photography Howard Atherton. Though production design by Jon Hutman and costumes by Judianna Makovsky probably contributed to the film's relatively high budget, they are secondary to the overall tone of blurry fantasy which informs the central character's delusionary state (frozen in time by the death of his childhood sweetheart). Lyne drifts around this carefully crafted landscape with characteristic slow camera movements and some interesting crane and tracking shots which tend to lull the viewer into a mild doze. If this sometimes seems excessive, it is probably because it is meant to be. Individual bravura moments such as Lolita rushing up the stairs to say goodbye to Humbert before she goes to camp and the creepy first encounter with Quilty are merely tasters which lead up to the climactic payoff, where Lyne revisits the nightmare world of Jacob's Ladder, where the demons are Langella and Irons.

The film also shows traces of black comedy (though not of satire), and there are some hilariously inappropriate sight gags and double entendres which somehow don't make you laugh much. On the whole the film is more reverential than Kubrick's, and more faithful to the details of the novel itself. It is arguable that Kubrick never took the material seriously except in so far as it afforded him an opportunity to work his personality through it, but Lyne does. The elements of humour never extend to the pure farce of the cot scene in Kubrick's film and the descent of Irons' Humbert into a sunken wreck is more believable than James Mason's. For some the result may be that the film often seems overwrought, and it arguably is. It is certainly melodramatic rather than psychological, and despite its emphasis on a stylised world, it is not quite as subjective as it seems.

There are elements which don't work at all. Despite a solid enough performance, Melanie Griffith is given less room to develop her character than she deserves, leaving slightly too much time in the company of the mismatched lovers spent observing their various couplings and flirtations. Though her mother's death is an important movitational factor in the (willing) descent of the so called nymphet, the character's presence is a little too muted to exert a powerful influence over the parts of the film where she is absent (as Shelley Winters did). In the role of Lolita, Dominique Swain plays the precocious and sensual side of her character well, but her overall savvyness is more 1990s than 1940s, and she is, despite her actual age, unconvincing on the level of girlishness which necessarily plays an important part in the action. The much older Sue Lyon played it more skilfully in 1962, and despite the contradiction inherent in saying it, an older actress is probably better suited to playing such a complex role. The film also becomes somewhat redundant after a while, slowly charting an inevitable path to damnation. The endless succession of motels and deserted burgs visited by the couple become a generalised, generic, wasteland America, and if there is a point to be made by such scenes, it is well taken long before the end of the film. Again, this may be seen as a narrative strategy designed to force the viewer to question the nature of the story rather than simply follow it, because the same point can be made of the previous version.

These are important points, and in a sense they weaken the core of the film. Though it is nominally centred on Humbert himself, and Irons is pretty good in the lead, Lolita offers a singular opportunity to examine several key issues relating to our conception of the moral world. For Kubrick, it was an opportunity to let fly at the institutions and structures of society. Lyne has played it more or less as a straight moral tale. Irons' Humbert is a lovestruck teenager trapped in a man's body, which evades the questions of adult responsibility and the establishment of moral and social borderlines which would provide the tale with greater relevance. It's not merely a lack of acting ability, but lacking depth of characterisation and a modulated social penetration which comes from script and direction, it plays much too close to soap opera: a tale of doomed romance in an escapist fantasy world inhabited by devils and angels and purely phantasmagorical glimpses of the world of the Law.

Yet its best moments are its most outrageous, where Lyne unleashes his pyrotechnics and surpasses the nuts and bolts of plotting to dissect the moments between men and women where fireworks occur. The first meeting with Quilty is one, Humbert's assault on Lolita in a motel when he suspects her of infidelity is another, the bloody climax another. Here melodrama becomes opera, though it can seem like the film has not fully earned the right to go so far over the top. It would have been unfeasible to make the entire film on full throttle like this, but given the relative lack of meat in the more dramatic moments, it is only at such times that it begins to fully engage its audience in a moral maelstrom.

The sex scenes are largely handled with care and are not designed for titillation, but neither are they particularly meaningful in the manner of David Cronenberg's Crash (the oft-written about comic book scene excepted). Though it does eventually find its way into our psyche's via some choice words spoken at the right moment, it is fair comment to note a tendency to voyeurism inevitable and perhaps necessary given the subject matter. This is, after all, a story about sex, and specifically sex between a young girl and a grown man. It cheapens the drama to exclude explicit scenes, though Kubrick found his own ways around them in 1962. Freed by films including those he has made himself, Lyne is able to portray moments of physical intimacy, and does so. But he has rather squandered the opportunity with too many lingering shots of Swain's legs and torso throughout the film which make the sexuality more visual than visceral. Curiously, it seems that an effort to be tasteful has motivated this approach, but the result is to trivialise images of sexual intimacy which have an inherent power to intensify involvement (though they can as easily be turned to exploitation).

Lolita is not the soft porn apologia for paedophilia the reactionary press would have you believe it is. But neither is it quite all it seems to have hoped to be. Despite the strong sense of moral comeuppance and pointless regret, it is not as chilling as it could have been. Frank Langella exerts the most terrifying presence in the film (appropriate, perhaps for an actor who has portrayed Dracula), but Irons eventually seems foolish rather than pathetic. His mournful, bloodstained face gazing across the grassy valley as the final voice over informs us of the real meaning of his crime is not enough to cap the movie. It is neither distant enough nor close to purge the soul, or even explore it sufficiently.

But if the film does serve successfully in any capacity, it is in that it still raises questions beyond the specifics of its own story. That, surely, is a worthwhile contribution to the relationship between cinema and society in the late twentieth century, and, curiously, allows the film to achieve its most important goal: to make us question ourselves rather than debate the mechanics of a story in isolation from their moral foundation.

Of course we must not fall prey to the trap of giving extraneous concerns precedence over analysis of the quality of the film itself. To do so would be to be as guilty of ignorance as those who decry it for what they feel it represents in the abstract. In the final analysis Lolita fails, but no more or less than it did in 1962. In fact, it is best seen as part of a continuum of evolution of the tale itself. It will be interesting to see the next attempt to tell it and then put Lyne's film the context of that version, if it ever comes.

It is worth seeing, but it will not prove definitive either as adaptation or as cautionary tale. Some will find it boring, others will find it shocking, more still may wonder what all the fuss was about. But any way you react to the film, it should be from a viewing rather than a mere supposition.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.