Starring Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Dominique Swain
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Adrian Lyne's controversial film Lolita had the misfortune of arriving in a time when the sexual abuse of children has become an explosive societal issue. For all the hype that surrounded its 10-month saga to find an American distributor, Lolita is, in the end, surprisingly tame; those expecting child pornography or a trenchant critique of pedophilia are bound to be disappointed. Still, Lyne has done an admirable job with the challenge of adapting Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel for the screen. Overwhelming us with a cascade of lovely images, Lolita succeeds in being tragically moving despite the unsavory plot.
Following the obsession of 45-year-old Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) with 12-year-old Dolores Haze (Dominique Swain) the girl Humbert dubs Lolita, the film shows Humbert doing everything in his power to be near her--even marrying Dolores' mother, Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith). Following Charlotte's death under questionable circumstances, Humbert takes off on a cross-country journey with his young love, only to find that he is being pursued by a mysterious stranger, Clare Quilty (Frank Langella).
As Lolita, Dominique Swain is a little too pouty; she chews gum and candy so perpetually and is so addicted to comic books that her character becomes rather tiresome. Similarly, Melanie Griffith, in the role of Dolores Haze, is so flaky that we are bored of her presence all too soon. Neither is a particularly likeable character, although this seems to have been a calculated move on Lyne's part. The effect of this is to turn our sympathies to Humbert, played perfectly by Jeremy Irons, whose expressive face beautifully conveys his longings and inner torment. Reserved and elegant, Irons' character is the most thoughtful and multidimensional person in the film, so much so that we are almost compelled to try and understand his actions in spite of ourselves.
The Humbert of Lyne's movie does not say very much, as opposed to the verbose Humbert of Nabokov's book. Indeed, Nabokov takes his book's basic plot and builds layer upon layer of meaning, drowning the story line in seductive word play which, amazingly, is able to lead the reader's attention away from the moral issues underlying the book. "Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth," Humbert says by way of indroduction in the book, providing us with a glimpse of the verbal gymnastics that are to come. In the end, Nabokov's novel is largely about the power of language to transform a fundamentally disturbing situation into an exquisite work of art which we can admire for its own sake.
The seductive word play of the novel is clearly missing from the movie, but perhaps Lyne recognized that it would have been a near-impossible task to recreate Nabokov's words through the medium of film. Indeed, the reason why Lyne's film works is that it focuses upon the potential of film to beautify even the morally grotesque, ensuring that Nabokov's broader message about the power of art has not been lost, only translated to another medium. Visual images take over for book's words; for instance, the idea of "haze," a play off Dolores Haze's name which is so prominent in the novel, transforms itself into visible haze in the film, from Humbert's grainy remembrance of his first love, Annabel, to the ever-present cigarette smoke blowing around Quilty and Charlotte Haze's heads. Ethics become obscured amid scenes filled with sweeping vistas of mountains and green hills. Ennio Morricone's contemplative musical score swells with a "Rhapsody in Blue"-like theme, contributing to the movie's seductive power to flood our ears and eyes with only the most blameless of sense experience.
Indeed, Lyne's film is excruciatingly conscious of the fact that it is, after all, a film, and therefore contrived with elements at the filmmaker's disposal to shape audience perception. The film never lets us forget that we are seeing a very personal memoir through Humbert's own eyes and ears. Scattered voiceovers give us glimpses into Humbert's observations and feelings. Meanwhile, trivial occurrences in the film are occasionally represented in almost too much detail, from the making of an ice cream sundae to the zapping of bugs on a porch, as they might be in Humbert's fevered mind. Other times, the camera slows down Lolita's actions in running up the stairs, or playing tennis, in the same way that Nabokov's narrative draws out these occurrences in feverish detail through words.
At times, the utilization of these elements is so abrupt that it cannot help being jarring, as if Lyne is announcing, forcefully, that he is taking artistic license. Yet, his point is well-taken that we are observing the individual experience of a man whose emotional experience is unlike any other, particularly as he plunges deeper and deeper into a state of madness. When Humbert suffers from these bouts of insanity, twisted camera angles and the sudden jangle of discordant music cut into the narrative.
But then again, this may be precisely the point. These moments are overdone just enough that we are always aware that they are the products of art, in the same way that the movie's characters are overdone just enough that they are not entirely believable outside the context of the film. In the end, the overall effect is a little artificial, a big spectacle designed to seduce the viewer into turning away from the moral problem of the film. Still, this is not such a bad thing. In a time when films so often try to say something about life, here is a film about the power of film. It is this which makes Lolita ultimately refreshing rather than shocking.