Tuesday, September 3, 2013

FI: Lolita (1997)

US, 1997
Directed by Adrian Lyne

Whatever else you can say about Adrian Lyne's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the film was always destined to suffer by comparison to Stanley Kubrick's classic 1962 version (written by the author himself). It was, perhaps, an unnecessary venture for Lyne and writer Stephen Schiff to undertake, but a bold one nonetheless. Having never read Nabokov's novel, I can't comment on which, if either, is a more faithful adaptation, only on which interpretation works better as a film. For me, it is the Kubrick, though that's not to say Lyne's version has nothing to recommend in it.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, Lolita relates the self-justifying "confessions" of English academic Humbert Humbert (here played by Jeremy Irons as more pathetic than predatory). A lover of "nymphets"—his term for precocious adolescent girls—Humbert takes a position in a small college town in the US, where he boards with the Haze family: widowed Charlotte (Melanie Griffith) and her rebellious young daughter Dolores, or "Lo" (Dominique Swain). Humbert is immediately obsessed with his "Lolita," and she seems to enjoy his attentions as well. In time, events conspire to let Humbert and Lolita begin something of a life together, though it's hardly a peaceful coexistence. Humbert's jealousy and controlling ways bring trouble to a relationship already clouded by its skewed power dynamics—to say nothing of its questionable legality, morality, and ethics. The dramatization of their pairing is, by far, the strongest part of Lyne's adaptation.

Lyne's dreamy visual style is well-suited to situating the audience in Humbert's lust-struck perspective, and the film's sexualization of Lolita never feels like cheap titillation or anything less than appropriately transgressive for the material. Yet there is a mismatch between the film's "doomed romantic" tone and the tenor of some of the performances. While Swain acquits herself well as the vivacious-yet-juvenile Lo, Irons's Humbert seems self-consciously comical in a lot of scenes. This is a perfectly fine choice—there is plenty of room for dark humor in Humbert's character, as his narration shows—but Lyne rarely bends his scenes to fit the comedy, underselling it to the point of nearly burying it, such that we don't know what to do with the humor when we see it. The same issue also harms Griffith's performance and that of Frank Langella as Humbert's rival Clare Quilty, both of whose scenes play far campier than the bewitched tone Lyne sets for the rest of the film. If Lyne's romanticism is meant ironically, he never fully lets on, and this dissonance ultimately brings the film down.

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