I don’t know how Stanley Kubrick did it man. He made movies that were engrossing, detailed and pretty undeniably great. But at the same time his films make you feel weird and like the thing you’re watching can’t really be happening. It’s like if you stay up late and you’re tired but you watch a movie or something on TV anyway and things are kind of askew because you’re mind has stopped fully functioning. You can understand what you’re looking at but at the same time it doesn’t really make sense. It seems like it shouldn’t be good but somehow you’re completely immersed. And when it’s all over maybe some scenes or some questions still run through your mind before you finally fall asleep. Or perhaps you don’t think about it. But when you wake up the next day you start to process the movie proper and come to the realization that that movie or TV show or whatever it was is something special. It made you think about things differently and offered a unique experience that few viewings do. Or maybe you realize that what you saw was a piece of shit and you can’t figure out for the life of you why the hell you watched the thing. I think Kubrick’s movies are like that. They give you this strange feeling that’s sort of like what I just described and either you like that sensation or you don’t. I for one like it and Lolita is no exception to Kubrick’s creepy fucked up filmography.
James Mason (North by Northwest, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea) plays English professor Humbert Humbert (no that’s not a typo) who comes to stay in New Hampshire for the summer so he can get away and get some work done at the same time. The house that he stays at is owned by Charlotte Haze played by Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter, Winchester ’73). Her daughter is 14 year old Lolita played by Sue Lyon (The Night of the Iguana). When Humbert sees Lolita he instantly falls in love with her and things get hairy.
But if a pedophile romance wasn’t enough to make you feel like kind of a jerk for watching this in the first place then hold your horses ‘cause this shit goes into directions that I certainly was not expecting. For instance the film opens with Humbert telling some other guy, Quilty (Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove)), that he’s going to kill him and proceeds to do so. It was interesting to start this way because you don’t know who these two guys are and it immediately makes you wonder where this thing could possibly go that will eventually lead to murder.
To get to the beginning of the story we flash back to four years earlier and we see Humbert getting a tour of the New Hampshire house that he’s going to stay in. He hasn’t decided that this is where he’ll set up shop yet but as soon as he sees Lolita then he has to take the room. Now right off the bat this is a creepfest. Humbert gets a look at Lolita in a bathing suit relaxing in the back yard and can barely control himself. He’s not thinking, “oh that’s a pretty little girl”. Instead it’s, “damn, I have got to move in on this little number because she is fucking fine”.
Kubrick shows the next couple of days (or weeks?) in a sort of slow montage of Humbert, Lolita and Charlotte seeing a drive in movie, playing chess and also Humbert ogling Lolita while she’s playing with a hula hoop. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a montage quite like this before and I’m using the term “montage” loosely here because they’re really a string of very short scenes and they even involve dialogue. But whatever you want to call this (or whatever the proper term for something like this is (please let me know if you do)) it’s a smart and easy way to establish the growing relationship between the characters. I like that it’s a series of insignificant activities that connects them instead of one huge event. It’s easier to digest instead of trying to cram a lot of important character set up into one scene. But these short scenes are set to music which makes this montage seem so playful and innocent but you damn well know that it’s not so it’s an interesting choice. The song is a catchy little track too.
Eventually Charlotte sends Lolita away to summer camp so that she can put her moves on Humbert. She’s been all over him since he toured the house but of course he has no interest in her. You can understand why too but it’s not like Charlotte’s a mean lady or anything. I mean she gets on Lolita’s case but that’s mostly because she’s a brat (more on that later). Charlotte’s…kind of a simpleton I guess. She’s not refined like Humbert is and doesn’t notice this stranger drooling over her daughter. Charlotte desperately wants a man because her husband died seven years ago and she’s very lonely. She probably would’ve thrown herself at just about any guy that came to look at the room for rent and in fact at one point she does flirt with Quilty at a dance. But I feel sorry for her because she wants a companion and even though she’s pretty naïve and has a dull personality she’s still trying to raise a daughter by herself and make some extra money by renting out a room. I feel sorry that people don’t seem to care about her but at the same time she’s kind of frustrating because she can’t take a hint that Humbert isn’t into her.
Anyway, Humbert can’t bear the thought of never seeing Lolita again so he decides to marry Charlotte. This guy is totally fucked up man. He’s willing to pretend to love this woman and go through with a marriage just so he can be with her teenage daughter. But Humbert is fucking stupid because he keeps all of his real thoughts and intentions in a diary. Actually he explains that it makes the whole thing more exciting for him because he knows that he shouldn’t be doing it. Now I know I just said it was fucking stupid of him to do this but I actually do like this touch. It plays into the overall idea that Humbert shouldn’t be doing anything that you see him doing in this film. And also the diary plays a crucial role in the plot so it’s totally essential and not something that could’ve been left out.
To move this along and not to blow everything for you, through a series of occurrences Humbert and Lolita hit the road together. They go from town to town and their relationship evolves. Their whole romance is implied and there’s not a lot of dialogue given and definitely never any acts shown that implicitly tell us that they’re having sex with each other. But at the same time what the hell else could they be doing? Kubrick knows that the audience knows what’s going on so he doesn’t shove it in our faces. But of course Kubrick had to go in this direction because he didn’t have a choice. In 1962 it wouldn’t have been possible to make an explicit movie. It was just the times man. But this restriction works very well and I think it’s a huge part of what makes this such an awesome movie.
So a whole bunch of weird stuff happens throughout the film and the whole thing feels like a dream. It’s that classic Kubrick trademark of blurring reality and being in a dream-like state. At times everything seems just a little off and at others everything seems completely off.
Mason, Winters, Lyon and Sellers are all great. Most of the time Mason has this look on his face like he’s hiding something and acts nervous throughout. He becomes very paranoid as his relationship with Lolita progresses and shelters her more and more. But we never get to see him the way he was before he met Lolita, when he was just a regular guy. Instead we first meet him when he’s already turned into a sex offender. I guess there’s not much of a point in showing what his life used to be like but we don’t have anything to compare him to. We don’t know how he changed exactly. But I’m sure this is the most interesting part of his life so whatever. Just thinkin’ out loud.
I already talked about Winters’ character but she did a really great job. She’s always looking for approval from someone or worried about something. She tries to put on a happy face but she’s a very depressed woman that has no idea what’s really going on in her own house with her own daughter and new husband.
That leaves us with Lolita herself and you know what, she isn’t a real nice kid. She’s disobeys her mother and Humbert and doesn’t seem to respect anyone or anything. I guess part of it is her age but she’s a pretty bratty teen. I mean she yells at her mother and at Humbert all the time and just doesn’t seem to care about her life. Humbert has taken on this girl who needs to grow up a lot and he’s frustrated with that but he’s so infatuated with her looks and her body that he’ll never let her go. There is a bit of sympathy and sadness there because sometimes it seems like Lolita is trapped but then she’ll turn around and make up with Humbert and be completely devoted to him. She’s a very fickle person which makes her a pretty unlikeable character. Humbert is also kind of unlikeable because he’s a manipulator and a straight up pedophile. It’s interesting to have two unlikeable characters as your leads and I know I said the same thing about The Next Three Days but unlike that movie this one’s good. In Lolita the characters have depth and are complex. In The Next Three Days they’re just morons that can’t move on with their lives so fuck ‘em, they should both be in jail.
The ending to this movie is pretty shocking and like I said in the beginning it goes in a direction that I was not expecting. Again, this is classic Kubrick. It’s not like you knew where the thing was going anyway but when you get there it’s still surprising. So if you like feeling like maybe you shouldn’t be watching what you’re watching (ex: Crash (1997), Secretary) and you like Kubrick’s other work (ex: Eyes Wide Shut) then this is a must see. I don’t know why I waited so long to see it myself.
And you know Lolita really is cute as a button. I’m not saying I would do what Humbert did but Kubrick cast a very pretty girl for the title role. But really I’m not a pedophile. I promise. I uhh…oh god I sound like a creep now, don’t I.