#11 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
This is the anti-Spartacus. Where Spartacus was about the pure ideal of a man sacrificing himself for the good of humanity, Lolita is about a selfish man-child who kills the man who stole his under-aged sexual conquest from him and dies in prison. Spoilers, I guess.
It’s obvious that Kubrick struggled through the filming of Spartacus, and one of the ways that he dealt with that frustration was by buying the rights to and writing the script to the unfilmable novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s almost a mirror image of the film that was giving him headaches every single day.
Humbert Humbert is a British man of mediocrity who has made enough money off of a translation of some French poetry to vacation in a small New Hampshire town. As a home owner is guiding him around her house, hoping to convince him to rent her free room, it’s obvious that Humbert wants nothing to do with her. He tries to extricate from the situation several times until she virtually drags him into her backyard where her fourteen year old daughter, Dolores, is sunbathing. Immediately Humbert is very keen on staying, and her mother, Charlotte, has no clue as to why. She’s a dim, earnest woman who is desperate for attachment, mostly physical, with a man.
The infatuation Humbert has with Dolores, nicknamed Lolita, is screamingly obvious, but neither Charlotte nor Lolita seem to notice. Charlotte is so overcome with her physical infatuation with Humbert that she can’t see any faults and Lolita is simply too innocent or unconcerned at the beginning. As the summer progresses, Charlotte sends Lolita to camp for the rest of the season and Humbert agrees to marry Charlotte after he reads a confession she wrote for him (that he laughs through) outlining her love for him. He’s happy to take advantage of the situation to remain close to Lolita, giving him a permanent place near her for when she returns from camp. Charlotte dies in what is somewhere between an accident and suicide when she finds Humbert’s diary that describes his real feelings for the “cow” Charlotte and his love for Lolita.
Freed from the shackles of any remnant of a traditional family, Humbert essentially takes Lolita on the run, moving to Ohio for a couple of years before running across the country as he feels that his sexual relationship with this young girl is prone to be found out, especially by Clare Quilty, a writer of some fame that seems to follow them from place to place. Eventually, Lolita runs away for several years. When Humbert finds Lolita again three years later, she tells him that she was having an affair with Quilty as long as she had known Humbert and it was he who had taken her away, but that relationship is over and she has cast off the shackles of new love for the shackles of an older model of love in the form of a monogamous marriage with a nice young man. She’s even carrying his child. Dejected, Humbert gives her all the money he has and runs off to find Quilty, killing him in his messy and cavernous mansion.
Each time I see this film, I like it a tad bit more. It’s certainly good, but I think it’s a good bit from greatness, though time may change that opinion. I think the biggest little issue I have is that I don’t find Peter Sellers that funny. Humor is extremely subjective (which is why I rarely try to critique it), but Sellers’ performance as Quilty is amusing most of the time and far from hilarious which seems to undermine the amount of screentime he gets. I do think his bit as a German psychologist, though, is really funny.
The bigger issue I have is with the treatment of Humbert. He’s the protagonist and he doesn’t grow at all. I have no problem with that (Lolita is the one who grows, and that contrast is handled really well), but the tone of the film is an ironic romanticism that centers around a sexual predator. It’s hard to tell if the movie wants me to feel bad for him, and it makes an unusual viewing experience. He’s a despicable monster, a mediocrity in his life, and unable to form anything remotely like a real relationship. In a movie built on irony, it’s interesting to watch him completely spurn Charlotte but fall head over heels for Lolita because they share all of the same personality faults. They’re both incurious about the world with very low tastes in art and with an inability to really follow what Humbert considers greatness. The way Lolita dismisses Edgar Allen Poe’s poem that Humbert recites to her is exactly the same sort of behavior Charlotte would give. It’s only their youth that differentiates mother and daughter. That character trait that makes him an immovable man child without any growth makes him interesting, but the movie’s almost coddling of him feels a bit wrong. It may be intentionally ironic (especially with the romantic swells of music that come during his worst moments), but I’m not sure it’s really successful.
Lolita, though, is the character that really grows. She starts the movie as innocent as a fourteen year old girl sunbathing in a bikini can be, becomes knowledgeable about how to manipulate men, and evolves into the one person in the film who embraces the idea of family. Humbert walks into a family to destroy it for his own pleasure while Quilty happily dances around them to pursue nothing else than his own sense of pleasure. Lolita, though, ends the film in a marriage with a baby on the way and her inheritance (that Humbert, in a fair reading of his actions, stole from her for several years). They are off to Alaska to start a new life in a place far removed from the kind of life she had lead up to that point.
I was in a conversation with someone a while back and this someone made the assertion that much of Kubrick’s filmography was set against the idea of the family. The discussion was really around The Shining, but I couldn’t help but recall that conversation as I rewatched Lolita. Trying to view the film through that lens, I could only come away with the idea that Lolita was, perhaps, an affirmation of family, but maybe it’s more of a refutation of the refutation of the family. Humbert wants nothing but his own pleasure, and he destroys lives. Quilty wants nothing but his own pleasure, and he destroys lives. Lolita wants a family, and she eventually finds it, being used along the way. It’s an interesting take, at least.
Netflix Rating: 4/5
Quality Rating: 3/4
Originally published here.