Review: Lolita (1962)


Mentioning judo almost saved your character Peter Sellers, but not quite!

Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick & Vladimir Nabokov
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

This was my first exposure to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, although I had seen the 1990’s remake and quite enjoyed it. There are marked differences between the two, but the biggest difference is the cold and austere aesthetic Kubrick opts for. It creates a much different experience, while the subject matter is still taboo it’s not a lurid movie as much as it is a possessive one. Instead of being about the lust of an older man for a fourteen year old girl, and the eventual sexual relations between the two, Kubrick’s Lolita is about the possessive tendency of man as displayed through the three men we see in Lola’s life.

Humbert does love Lola, I think that is obvious. It doesn’t begin as a bad love though, if you remove the age factor and simply look at the love he shows towards Lola you are left with a standard romantic longing. Humbert makes his own actions lurid and taboo because of the possessiveness he brings to the relationship. It’s not freaky that he is in a relationship with a fourteen year old, what takes him over the edge of accepted normalcy is the way he wants to control her. He wants to be both lover and father to Lola, that is the taboo notion that Kubrick stresses. In a lot of ways Lola’s age is an afterthought the more the movie progresses, Lola herself is an afterthought next to the downward spiral Humbert experiences in his efforts to control Lola.

The other two men in Lola’s life play a smaller role, but each are also possessive in their own way. Quilty only wants Lola when he can control her and mold her into his own desire, once she rebels against that he casts her aside. Dick wants the typical housewife and as long as Lola is willing to conform to that idea he is a happy man. The deeper I broke down Lolita the more the theme of control and possession grabbed a hold of me. People who look at Lolita as only a taboo tale of pedophilia are missing the boat on the larger ideas Kubrick wanted to explore.

The true strength of Lolita is in its acting. James Mason is wonderfully mannered as Humbert, his descent into a crazed man works because Mason paints a man who should be above such a fall. Sue Lyon is delightful as Lola, she find that place in between child and sexual adult and rides it for all its worth. Shelley Winters is the true gem amongst the cast, her Charlotte is absolutely boorish and loud yet full of sympathy and a desire to just be happy.The lone drawback to the cast is the one role most people rave about and that is Peter Sellers as Quilty. The movie isn’t supposed to be about Quilty, he is but a bit player to the larger picture but in every scene Sellers tries to make the film about him with his overacting and voice tricks. I could have done with a lot less of the annoying Quilty and his scene hamming.

Lolita is a cold film, it doesn’t present its subject matter in a scintillating manner and that helps it seem all the more brazen and alluringly taboo. But underneath the astringent formality rests the story of a man possessed with a young girl. His slow demise under her spell is well worth a watch and the moment near the end when he realizes that truth be told he was nothing more than a happenstance occurrence in her life shatters him at the same time it shatters the generally possessive outlook men have on women, or at least did in 1962. I’m sure others will like it even more than I did because I appear to be in the vast minority when it comes to my dislike of Peter Sellers’ performance. It’s not major Kubrick, but it’s still Kubrick tackling a subject most others would shy away from and that alone makes Lolita a movie that is easy to recommend.





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