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Fatal Detraction

With all that is truly scandalous in the movies these days--namely the dimwit dramaturgy and the anything-for-a-buckism that passes for Hollywood entertainment--it is something of a shock to realize that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita still has the power to offend. Proof is the book's new movie adaptation, directed by Adrian Lyne, scripted by Stephen Schiff and starring Jeremy Irons as the passionate pedophile Humbert Humbert, a man entranced by nymphets.

Completed more than two years ago, the movie went without a distributor in this country until the small, independent Samuel Goldwyn Films agreed to a limited theatrical release following the film's early-August airing on cable TV's Showtime network. (By then it had already played, to a mixed reception, in England and France and had a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in a small Los Angeles arthouse.) It's easy to understand why all the major Hollywood studios passed on this $58 million migraine: Why risk hurting their corporate image promoting such a film when it was far from certain they would even retrieve their investment? Now that the movie has been released nationally, their worries, in cultural if not financial terms, appear unfounded.

As far as its subject matter goes, this Lolita is shocking, all right, but it's not exploitative. Neither, of course, was Nabokov's 1955 novel nor Stanley Kubrick's antic, brilliant 1962 movie version. Lolita, in whatever form it takes, should be shocking. But this new movie incarnation makes its appearance during a particularly schizophrenic time in our culture. Despite all of the media attention given over to the sexual exploitation of children, there has never been another time when the image of the nymphet has been so fawned over and commercialized. Nymphets peer out at us, posse-like, from fashion pages and movie screens. What in the end may prove shocking to audiences of this new Lolita is not so much its cast of characters as the apparent seriousness of its intent.

That very seriousness functions in the film as a kind of merit badge. In order to show off his deep-dish credentials, Lyne (1983's Flashdance, 1987's Fatal Attraction) has given us a lyrically lethargic Lolita. He has done to Nabokov's book what generations of Hollywood directors have always done to the "classics"--he's slicked it up with high purpose. What he has wrought is, in some ways, commendable--he connects with Humbert's longing and sorrow--but conceptually and stylistically, he has seized upon incendiary material and then taken the safe, academic way out. What makes the novel such an extraordinary document is how it horrifies when it is at its most wheedlingly funny. Humbert isn't just a great tragic figure--he's a great comic figure, too. His lecherous folly for the twelve-year-old Lolita is a parody of passion that turns out to be the real thing. Nabokov's Lolita, as literary critic Lionel Trilling famously wrote, "is not about sex but about love." And yet there has never been another love story that had such a rotting, risible soul.

And so the chief complaint one can lodge against Lyne's film is central: It's not that funny. Which is another way of saying that, for all its controversy, it's not that daring. Much has been made of the fact that Lyne's film sticks much closer to Nabokov's novel than did Kubrick's version. In the most literal-minded sense, this is true. But Kubrick's film--which, in numerous published interviews, has been the target of heavy-duty disparagement from Lyne and his collaborators--was a lot closer to Nabokov in spirit. (Nabokov himself has screenwriter credit on the earlier film, though most of his work wasn't used.) Kubrick captured--particularly in Peter Sellers's monologues as Humbert's béte noire, Clare Quilty--the book's rhapsodic, nut-brown ghastliness.

There's another over-arching problem in Lyne's film: It's all told from Humbert's unwavering point of view, as if we were watching what really happened. But although Humbert was also the narrator of Nabokov's book, he was no more reliable than any other species of madman. By framing the film as a transcription of reality--not simply Humbert's reality--the material becomes insuperably flattened-out. It turns into a movie about a suffering, martyred romantic.

It's a highly conventional approach for a most unconventional hero. Humbert's character is "explained" for us. For example: At age thirteen, while living at his father's hotel on the French Riviera, he falls for a twelve-year-old girl named Annabel, who dies of typhus a year later. These early flashback scenes are in the movie to demonstrate how this loss locked Humbert into a lifelong yearning for nymphets. But what comes across just looks like a fancy form of special pleading, a way to absolve Humbert of his sins. Surely there is more to Humbert's mania than this cut-and-paste Freudianism?

Years later, in 1947, Humbert, now a professor of French literature, ventures to a small New England town to take a teaching post. There he encounters the overbearingly amorous widow Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith) and her daughter, Lolita (Dominique Swain), the surrogate Annabel. Lolita becomes Humbert's ruling passion, but the passion is dolorous from the start. Lolita is his temptress, his ruin, and we're never allowed to forget it. On the soundtrack are the composer Ennio Morricone's mournful phrasings. Humbert, stricken instantly when he first sees Lolita, is stricken ever after.

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