directed by Stanley Kubrick
based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov
at the Harvard Film Archive
Wednesday October 20, 5 pm
Entertaining, ironic, instructive, passionate and comic, Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is a required cultural experience, whether or not you are familiar with the novel.
When Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a French professor who has come to New Hampshire to lodge for the summer before starting a lectureship, tours the home of prospective landlord Charlotte Haze (Sue Lyons), he is completely turned off by her blatant, grotesque and clingy personality. But one look at Haze's shrewd, sexy adolescent daughter, Dolores (a.k.a. Lo or Lolita, played by Shelley Winters), sensuously sunbathing on the front lawn, and Humbert is there to stay. The story plays out Humbert's pedophilic passions, and, when Lolita and he go on a cross-country escapade, it becomes an extended commentary on mid-twentieth century American culture.
The film rendition presents a vivid visual elaboration of this classic tale. The camera's eye allows certain emotions, facial expressions and attitudes to be expressed in their full-fledged wry and sardonic wit and irony. In one concise scene, Kubrick quickly establishes Humbert's desirability to both of his women when the three of them see a horror movie and the mother and daughter each grip his hand in fright. Presaging what is to follow in one deft move, Humbert extricates his left hand from the older Mrs. Haze's clutch and places it on top of Lolita's hand.
In the book, Nabokov leads us to understand Humbert's actions by explaining his obsession with the lithe freshness of younger girls, or "nymphets" as he terms them. The film relies more on the force of visual image to create the psychological foundation as there is no narrator to guide the viewer through the story. For instance, Kubrick displays the perverted side of Humbert's otherwise charming nature by setting the first scene of the movie at the chronological end of the story, when Humbert commits a cold, calculated act of violence.
The acting by all of the major characters in the film is superb. James Mason in the lead role provides a masterful portrayal of polish and perversion. As Lolita, Shelley Winters revels in the role of the clever, assertive and pouty nymphet. Sue Lyons' Charlotte Haze oozes visceral detestability to the point where the viewer empathizes with Humbert's disgust.
And Peter Sellars, who adopts the multiple personas of the playright Clare Quilty, serves as the foil and conscience to Humbert. The very fact that Humbert is wholly unaware of Quilty's strange reappearances and sinister ways adds comic touches to the film and signifies his total unconsciousness of the gravity of the situation in which he is immersed.
The beauty of "Lolita" is that one can watch it for pure entertainment and/or for its deeper psychological and cultural subthemes; neither viewing experience has to interfere with the other.
Of course the sexual undertones range from subtle to blatant--to have time alone with Humbert, Charlotte Haze sends Lolita to Camp Climax, of all places. And Nabokov's narrative treats such themes as the role of the writer and the distinction between art and life, Freudian repression, myopia and the American obsession with the European Romantic.
"Lolita" is a fantastic film for moviegoers in any mood. Humbert and Lolita's illicit love is so riveting, it needs to be seen on the big screen. Bring a date.