Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Vladimir Nabokov
Stanley Kubrick has always been a strange beast to me, for the films of his I have seen and those I haven’t. I have witnessed his great’s, being Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange. What is remarkable about this collection of films is their eclectiveness. One from the other is totally different and a lot of that has to do with their subject matters being somewhat distance, yet they each have the feel that links them, and that feel is distinctly Kubrick, and it is distinctly brilliant, albeit twisted and odd. Kubrick made some funky films with some strange premises, at the top of the list would be A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut, a film I have not seen. But understanding this about Kubrick was crucial to the experience I had with his Lolita.
Based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, who also wrote the script here, Lolita is not so much about its titular character as it is the obsession of her by Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason). Humbert is a professor of French poetry who has happened upon the small town where Lolita (Sue Lyons) and her mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters) live. Looking for a place to rent, Humbert chooses the Haze’s, but only after catching sight of the sunbathing, 14 year old daughter of Mrs. Charlotte Haze. Living with his infatuation, Humbert keeps a diary and soon even “falls” for Charlotte. But Charlotte has other things in mind for Lolita, sending her off for the summer to an all girls camp. Throw into the mix one Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a television writer of some note who shares the same infatuation as Humbert, and the rest of the summer becomes a cat and mouse match.
The film opens on a scene that is textbook Kubrick, and by that I mean it is a tense as hell, and yet still hilarious (thanks Mr. Sellers), prologue to the story to come. In fact it opens with an encounter 4 years after the main story starts, providing the fodder for which the story to be told, which is of the utmost importance because knowing how it ends, but not why, is key to making the otherwise melodramatic plot more involving and tense than it really should be. Which brings me to the next oddity about this particular Kubrick film, Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers is one of my favorite actors probably ever and that is because he is also one of the funniest ever, and he is showcased quite nicely here, given ample opportunity to shine with his ability not only to slip in and out of numerous characters, something he would perfect even more in Kubrick’s later Dr. Strangelove, but also to bumble his way through comedic gold with verbose ease.
But what makes Sellers an oddity here is the tone of the film. The tone is that of tense melodrama created by the sketchy relationship between Lolita and Humbert which reminded me a great deal of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. So when the hilarious Sellers appears it is a delight in the comedy delivered, but I was also often thrown out of the main storyline because it felt so tonally different. At the same time, this imbalance is at the heart of what makes Kubrick somewhat of a genius. Aren’t we supposed to feel uneasy while watching this film? The relationship between Humbert and Lolita borders on fatherly and romantic which makes it both really sweet but also highly inappropriate. I feel uncomfortable just writing this.
At the end of the day Kubrick manages to do it again. It is not as powerful as some of his other greats and perhaps not as iconic, though that may be tough to argue given the perpetual image of Lolita sunbathing in the garden while Humbert tours the house, and Kubrick seems to have known that. Sue Lyons in the titular role does a great job considering she really was that young when it was filmed, and James Mason is solid as ever, effective in emoting the confusion of his character. Shelley Winters reminds me a lot of Melissa Leo really. She can go big and make it seem like it’s not over the top, which really is quite impressive. But I have to say it again, Peter Sellers is the star here, even if he gets much less screentime than the leads in Mason and Lyon. I don’t think there has been a Kubrick film I have not liked and appreciated the craft a great deal, but, other than Dr. Strangelove, a film that is also quite different, I would also say that his style is one that is so off the wall that I have also not been able to love any of his films.