Taboo or Not Taboo?
[spoilers, unless you’ve read the novel]
College professor Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons, from The Man in the Iron Mask) arrives in postwar New England the summer before he’s to take up a new teaching post. His planned accommodations suddenly unavailable, he’s forced to stay with a friend of a friend, Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith) — she’s a bit of a character and her house is rather more casual than he likes, and he’s about to turn around and leave when Charlotte introduces her 14-year-old daughter, Dolores (Dominique Swain). Humbert is instantly mesmerized by the unconsciously provocative Lo, as her mother calls her, and so begins his descent into obsession, paranoia, and murder.
Director Adrian Lynes‘s Lolita garnered lashings of controversy when it was released — barely — in 1997. It appeared on the big screen for about five minutes before the cable network Showtime “dared” to screen it (it’s now available on video). I use the word dare lightly because Lolita just isn’t the kind of offensive garbage the unwashed masses would like to think it is (gasp! a movie glamorizing a middle-aged man’s violation of a young girl!) — trash like Armageddon and Con Air is infinitely more insidious. But Lolita does make so bold as to infract on one of our society’s strongest taboos, exploring in the rawest, most intense manner male vulnerability, both emotional and physical.
You’d think Humbert might find Charlotte as appealing as she finds him — she speaks the way Griffith always does, like a little girl playing grown-up. But no: Humbert isn’t a pedophile. It’s just this one particular 14-year-old girl he’s fixated on — Lo reminds Humbert of Annabelle, with whom he was infatuated when they were both 14, their doomed teenaged affair full of aspirations of love and adventure. So when Charlotte bares her heart to tell Humbert he’s the man of her dreams, he marries her, even as he’s repulsed by her, just to stay near Lo. And when ironic tragedy removes Charlotte from the picture, Humbert takes Lo on an extended car trip around the United States, as if their removal from everyday life makes their affair less of an abomination.
Lyne depicts Lo in a frighteningly erotic way, her childish braids and braces and love of movie-star magazines countered by the knowing look in her eyes — she’s not as unaware of her seductiveness as we at first suspect… or is she? The film is told from Humbert’s point of view: He recognizes his own madness, “the danger, the hopelessness of it all,” yet he calls Lo the “light of my life, fire of my loins, my life, my soul.” Is she really the little nymphet we see, or is that all in Humbert’s imagination? Irons’s performance is a wonder — he wanders through the film totally befuddled by himself, never quite sure how much he’s deluding himself (and, by extension, us). He’s a contradictory picture of repression, his pajamas buttoned all the way up to his neck, and abandonment, grinning with delight as Lo finally seduces him.
Lo may be disturbingly sexy, but that is the point of Lyne’s film. More disturbing, I suspect, for many of its viewers is how Lyne has eroticized Humbert’s pathetic desperation. Jeremy Irons has never looked so attractive on film — he’s practically luminous in his mania. Humbert is certainly not the slimy or sleazy character you’d expect him to be, but a sad, lonely one. Weak, vulnerable, emotionally needy women drawn as sexy is nothing new, but to see a man caving in on himself shown in an erotic light has got to be an affront to our culture’s image of real men as strong and inviolable.
Even more offensive to some, I think, would be the scene toward the end of the film, when Humbert hunts down the man who spirited Lo away from him, leaving him close to insanity. Humbert steals into the home of writer and pornographer Clare Quilty (Frank Langella) and shoots him down… but not before chasing the surprised, naked Quilty through the house, terrorizing him in his final moments of life. We’re talking full frontal male nudity, another of mainstream film’s near taboos — there Quilty is, running for his life, flapping in the breeze. Bad enough to be shot to death, but to be so exposed… It’s the ultimate male indignity.
Lolita is not a pleasant film — it’s rather sickening, actually. But it is provocative, not in a sexual way, but in a way that will leave you pondering our society’s, Hollywood’s, and your own views about men and women for quite a while.