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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.

And let's face it: Jeremy Irons has been stricken in far too many movies lately. Waterland, M. Butterfly, Damage, Stealing Beauty, The Chinese Box--he's becoming a regular Garbo. As beautiful as his line readings often are, Irons isn't terribly interesting when he drizzles himself out in this way; his anguish is too decorous. In Reversal of Fortune, he was able to snap out of his fine-tuned funk because the character he was playing, Claus von BYlow, was a real rotter--a prize cad. But in Lolita, he's much closer to the comatose Sunny von BYlow. This elegant nothingness passing for grand passion saps the material of its power to disturb; Humbert is such a writhing wraith that he never comes close to being a predator. It is Lolita who is shown to be the initiator of their sexual folly. Because the film--as opposed to the book--is so intent on turning Humbert into an all-out tragic figure, it never even gives his lechery its due. Lyne is too high-minded for that. Or is it high-low-minded? We first see Lolita stretched out on the lawn as a sprinkler dapples her; we might as well be watching a commercial for a new perfume--Nymphet, perhaps?

Dominique Swain at least has the right flip coyness for the role, and the movie's tartest scenes are those in which her Lolita exasperates the humbug Humbert with her low-down tastes. Lolita is a child of pop culture, and in the movie's terms, her fetish for pulpy movie magazines and songs with lyrics like "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo" is distinctly all-American. The contrast between Humbert's aggrieved European finesse--his extraction is primarily Swiss-English--and Lolita's slangy Americanism should be jauntier than it is. Lyne makes it bear too much metaphorical baggage.

It certainly is possible, though not entirely profitable, to regard Lolita as an allegory about how desiccated old postwar Europe was seduced and overwhelmed by the bright pop crud of the U.S. of A. But there should be more glee in this perception. Perhaps the reason there isn't is that Lyne is still on the side of the musty old Europeans. Nabokov, in his essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita," wrote, "Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity." Lyne wants to expunge any vulgarity from Lolita. He wants to make an art film on the Continental model--sleek and somnabulistic. That's his idea of art.

It isn't just pop vulgarity that gets short shrift in this Lolita. Missing also is a strong sense of the absurd. Humbert and Lolita, crisscrossing the country by car and stopping at cheesy motels and remote gas stations, are a mock father-daughter duo. On the surface, their spats sound like what any exasperated dad goes through with his kid--except, of course, that the incestuous context is infernal. What the movie mostly misses is the awful comic irony in all this.

What it does capture, in the end, is the irony that Humbert would massacre another man for doing to Lolita what he himself has done. Quilty is the man who hounds Humbert and spirits Lolita away to his own casbah. As played by Frank Langella, he's a voluminously fetid creep whose depravities, in his few scenes, appear bottomless. He is Humbert's walking nightmare, his nemesis, his alter ego--which, of course, is why he must be destroyed. The final image of the bloodied Humbert--bereft beyond all care, mourning Lolita's lost innocence--is eloquent.

What all this means, I fear, is that Lyne's Lolita works best as a classy horror film. This approach is not inappropriate to the material, but it's a vast diminution of what might have been. I realize this movie is not intended as a substitute for the book, and I have attempted to discuss it with that in mind. But the book keeps calling me back. Nabokov's masterpiece touched on so many senses and caught the reader in such a frightful whirligig of ardor and mischief and woe that it remains one of the most supremely unclassifiable great books. Lyne's version, by contrast, is essentially a long and lugubrious lamentation. It may be his Lolita, but it's not mine.

Lolita.
Directed by Adrian Lyne. Screenplay by Stephen Schiff. Starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.


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