Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1997)

7. Lolita

Adrian Lyne always followed his commercial success with risky choices. “Flashdance” beget “9 ½ Weeks,” which was too erotic for American audiences at the time. “Fatal Attraction” was followed by “Jacob's Ladder,” a challenging and thematically complex horror movie. After the financial windfall of “Indecent Proposal,” Lyne would make his most contested film yet. He chose to make a new adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's “Lolita,” one of the most controversial books of all time. Stanley tried back in the sixties. While his version was admirable, censors kept the novel's content off-screen. Lyne tackled the sex to such a degree that his “Lolita” barely played in American theaters. It more-or-less went to straight to Showtime. They wouldn't even release it in Australia. Lyne's “Lolita” has found its defenders over the years but how does it play in 2018?

Humbert Humbert, a English scholar and self-proclaimed intellectual, does not have the sexual appetites of most men. He desires young girls, which he calls nymphets. He pins this love on loosing his childhood sweetheart before they could consummate their relationship. As an adult, he takes a teaching job in suburban New Hampshire. He rooms with Charlotte Haze, a middle age woman desperate for love. Haze has a teenage daughter, Dolores, and Humbert immediately falls for her. The man, though luck and careful planning, soon has a chance to do everything he wants with his little Lolita. But this does not last.

Even as someone who likes some of Adrian Lyne's movies, I'll say it takes a bold filmmaker to follow in the footsteps of Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps luckily, Kubrick's 1962 attempt to film “Lolita” is not his best regarded film. Even Kubrick admitted that the decency standards of the time basically prevented him from making a proper adaptation. A lot had changed since 1962. Lyne's “Lolita” is a very faithful adaptation of Nabokov's book, at least as far as plotting goes. It hits all the major story beats and recreates most of the novel's primary scenes. If surface fidelity is all that counted, Lyne's “Lolita” would be considered the ideal adaption.

However, there's more to adapting a book then just replicating the story. 1997's “Lolita” is about what you'd expect from an adaptation of Nabokov's novel by the director of “9 ½ Weeks.” Lyne, at least partially, made a work of erotica. Lolita, as depicted here, is always dressed like a naughty schoolgirl, usually wearing revealing outfits. The camera often lingers on her body as lasciviously as Humbert does. (It also, I can't help but notice, focuses on her feet a lot. Which is gross.) Sexual situations are openly depicted and Lyne usually plays them for sensual thrills. Despite its reputation, Nabokov's book was never meant to be erotic at all. The merits of adapting “Lolita” as a straight-up work of erotica are very, very questionable indeed.

Yet Lyne's “Lolita” does, arguably, treat the facts of the case a little more fairly than Kubrick's version did. Kubrick's film portrayed all the events from Humbert's perspective. Either because of the censorship or the writing, the fact that Dolores Haze is being abused by a grown man was never really brought up. Between glossy sex scenes, Lyne's film pauses to consider this. After one session of making love, there's a shot of Lo lying on the bed, crying her eyes out, while Humbert watches from the doorway, looking guilty. During the only bit of actual female nudity in the film – provided by a body double – Lolita flees Humbert's bed and he has to fight to hold her there. Though often pushed to the sidelines, Lyne's film at least acknowledges that this is the story of an adult using his power to abuse a child.

Forced to cut the sexual elements, Kubrick's “Lolita” focused mostly on Nabokov's black comedy. Many have accused Lyne's version of overcompensating and cutting the humor entirely. This isn't entirely fair. His “Lolita” is actually quite funny at times. Humbert's utter disregard for Dolores' mother, and the ways he tricks her into never touching him, generates some hearty laughs. There's definitely some dark humor to a man lusting so obviously after a woman's daughter and her complete inability to recognize it. Lyne even sneaks in some absurdist and almost slapstick humor during Humbert's climatic fight with Claire Quiltley. Humor is not the film's primary goal but it's definitely part of its DNA.

Adrian Lyne's decision to shoot “Lolita” like, well, an Adrian Lyne movie may be questionable. However, I'd say he arguably captures an important and overlooked element of the book. The film is primarily characterized by an intense sadness and impossible longing. A girl's innocence is destroyed. Humbert, in his own way, is also destroyed by his obsession. This is a tragic story, where everyone makes bad decisions and nobody is spared a cruel fate. Humbert is not just after young girls because he's a pervert. He longs for a simple, childish love that is impossible to recapture. A sympathetic portrayal of an active child rapist, who only becomes repentant at the very end after he's already fucked up the girl's life, is obviously one of the reasons why “Lolita,” in any form, is such a controversial story. But I'd say the movie does an okay job with that.

James Mason was nearly perfect as Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's “Lolita.” I'd say that Jeremy Irons is the perfect Humbert Humbert for Lyne's “Lolita.” Irons has exactly the kind of erudite, stuffy, and conceited quality that the literary Humbert has. In voiceover narration, he beautifully recites some of Nabokov's intoxicating prose. Irons' poise and self-control also brings humor to the film, as he's forced to interact with a rowdy teen girl and her emotionally unstable mother. Irons gives Humbert such a calculated veneer of control that, when it cracks up, the result is powerful. Irons also gets that this is ultimately a tragic story, his love-lost eyes becoming sadder and sadder as the film goes on.

A then unknown Dominique Swain was chosen to star as Lolita. Putting aside the sleazy way the camera lavishes over her teenage body – Swain was fifteen at the time, which is still older than the character was in the book – Swain captures Nabokov's Lolita accurately. She is curious about sex, yes. She can be manipulative at times. However, Swain's Dolores is mostly a snotty teenage girl. She eats too many sweets, reads too many comic books. She's a bad liar. She doesn't bathe regularly enough. She snipes at her mother and Humbert. She is wounded by the abuse she suffers. Swain's humanistic approach helps ground this sometimes too flowery “Lolita.”

The supporting cast is strong as well. In Kubrick's film, Shelly Winters approached Charlotte Haze as a broad act of exaggerated comedy. Melanie Griffith plays the role more realistically. Dolores' mother is still a buffoonish character, utterly unable to recognize Humbert's true motivations. Yet Griffith brings a broken quality to her as well, which becomes more apparent as the character approaches her inevitable fate. Frank Langella steps into Peter Sellers' shoes to play Clare Quilty, Humbert's rival and Lolita's second defiler. Langella's Quilty is deprived, deviant, and vulgar. He's also very nervous and conniving, Langella bringing some jangly humor to the role.

Nabokov's “Lolita” is a story of very big emotions, though often delivered under black humor. Lyne's direction mostly seeks to replicate the emotions and not so much the other underpinnings. Lyne creates a handsome film, that's as lovely and beautifully shot as Nabokov's book was written. However, his approach frequently veers towards the melodramatic. A nightmare Humbert has, of laughing detectives in Dick Tracy masks, is shot in a swirling, seasick manner. The camera goes completely nuts and jittery when Humbert's car gets a flat tire. Quilty's murder is executed in a similarly overblown fashion. The film usually looks very nice but some of the director's choice to replicate the protagonist's nervous mental state so totally is ultimately distracting.

A serious factor in favor of Lyne's “Lolita” is its score. The legendary Ennio Morricone was called on to score the film. Morricone made the decision to write a straight-up romantic score. Which might point to a big flaw in the film's approach to the material. But it's a really, really pretty score. Sweeping strings have an undercurrent of melancholy to them, pointing to both the sadness and sensual longing the film is built upon. Low percussion and tapping piano suggests the dread of the situation and the childishness of the title character. Clare Quity is even given an ominous theme, full of nervously plucked strings, that wouldn't sound out of place in one of Morricone's spaghetti western scores. It's one of the most gorgeous scores to come out of a legendary career.

Making an adaption of “Lolita” in the modern day would be very difficult. (Though no less difficult than its probably always been.) We live in a world more aware and critical of the sexualization of young girls than ever before. So it's likely that Lyne's film will be the last cinematic take on the material will ever get. It does not stand up to Nabokov's book. So much of the novel's brilliance is wrapped up in its lovingly poetic prose, which could never be replicated by a film. If you mashed the two adaptations together, you'd probably get the best movie that could be made of “Lolita.” Lyne's film is problematic at times but well done, beautifully acted, and usually strikes the right emotional core. In the end, its pros does outranks its cons. [Grade: B+]

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