When a controversial film by a consistent hit-maker sits languishing in want of a U.S. distributor, something’s gotta be up. But the good news about Adrian Lyne’s “Lolita” is that it’s neither as irredeemable nor as morally shocking as its untouchable status would suggest. The bad news, however, is that after an intriguing opening stretch, and despite Jeremy Irons’ potent lead performance, the overlong film becomes repetitive, flat and often dull. Condemned by comparison with both its source novel and with Stanley Kubrick’s highly regarded 1962 adaptation, this second screen version of Vladimir Nabokov’s scabrous but ironic satire on love may stimulate initially strong results in many territories given its steamy subject, but looks unlikely to recoup the $62 million invested by Gallic producer Pathe.
The long-finished film world-premiered out of competition at the San Sebastian fest and opens Sept. 26 in Italy, followed by Spain and Germany. Seemingly almost as nervous as U.S. distribs about handling such a hot potato, Pathe’s distribution arm, AMLF, recently bumped the French release back to January.
Given the current chilly moral climate, the audaciousness in tackling such provocative material by a director known more for the exploitative treatment of sexual themes in his films than for their psychological or emotional depth represents either an act of great chutzpah or one of professional suicide. Having become an omnipresent worldwide media issue in recent years, pedophilia is now firmly established in the global consciousness as one of the most demonic crimes on the books.
But while Lyne goes about as far as a mainstream filmmaker can go in showing carnal passion between a grown man and a 12-year-old girl — reportedly cutting to specifications of the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, which restricts screen portrayals of sexual conduct involving children — it is less the confrontational images than the absence of a judgmental or openly condemnatory stance that could prompt indignation. This stems largely from the depiction of Lolita as a knowing manipulator and seductress, and her ardent adult lover as a helpless, frequently pitiable victim possessed by a passion beyond his control.
Having enlisted James Dearden, Harold Pinter and David Mamet to readapt Nabokov’s 1955 novel, and keeping elements only from Pinter’s draft, Lyne settled on a script by first-time screenwriter Stephen Schiff, best known for his work in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. His adaptation generally sticks much closer to the novel than Kubrick’s. While Kubrick expanded the character of Clare Quilty by way of Peter Sellers’ memorable turn to become the film’s driving force and perhaps the real monster of the piece, Schiff pulls him back to his original dimensions. Also crucial here is the decision to flash back to the tragic love that scarred the protagonist in his youth and created his yen for nymphets.
Urbane Euro gent and lit professor Humbert Humbert (Irons) has never quite recovered from the “poisonous wound” inflicted on him as a 14-year-old boy by the sudden death of his adolescent love, Annabel. Arriving in a small New England town for a college job, Humbert is about to refuse the humble lodgings offered by babbling widow Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith) when he spies her nubile pre-teen daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain) cooling off under a lawn sprinkler — wearing Penthouse spread-style, clingy, damp cotton — evoking memories of Annabel.
As Humbert moons around the house transfixed by Lolita, he fantasizes about a natural catastrophe eliminating her grating mother. She in turn conspires to pack the impertinent brat off to boarding school and get her romantic hooks into her lodger. Prior to departure, however, the coquettish jailbait plants a kiss on Humbert that seals his fate as her lover. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s declaration of love and her request for him to leave if he feels no similar affection give Humbert no choice but to comply and marry her or lose contact with the real object of his obsession.
Charlotte soon wises up when she reads Humbert’s diaries full of rapturous odes to Lolita and vitriol about “the Haze woman.” In one of literature’s great lucky breaks, she dashes out to mail incriminating letters and is hit and killed by a car. Hiding the truth from her at first, Humbert retrieves Lolita from summer camp and takes off on a tour that is both idyllic and doomed, marked as much by constant tiffs as sex games, along dusty Middle American highways to a string of motels. The undoing of Humbert’s great love proves to be slimy and similarly inclined celebrity playwright Quilty (Frank Langella), who gets a whiff of choice girl-flesh and refuses to desist from his determined pursuit.
Despite Griffith, in her brief screen time, being unable (as Shelley Winters did so well for Kubrick) to make the deluded, love-starved dolt with hopeless aspirations to sophistication into an enjoyable comic figure, and Ennio Morricone’s lovely melancholy score pushing at the wrong times for dramatic poignance, the opening section works well. Lyne establishes a light, ironic tone, milking laughs out of Humbert’s dumbstruck surrender to passion and the most dangerous kind of desire.
But problems arise when the director succumbs to the urge to make An Adrian Lyne Film, albeit one graced by Nabokov’s witty, melodious prose heard in Irons’ voiceovers. In lieu of real dramatic momentum or emotional weight, we get gratuitous art directional flourishes: insects frying on overhead lamps, whirring ceiling fans, blinking fluorescents, sunlight artfully flooding through every window, rain-drenched alleys, claustrophobic hallways and fetishistically prepared ice cream sundaes. The visual style turns from a hazy, nostalgic look to Lyne’s customary pumped-up, aggressive techno-gloss, distorting images with woozy, progressively more edgy camerawork, and cutting at double speed.
The crescendo peaks in Humbert’s showdown with Quilty. Having appeared up to then as a faceless threat that could almost be a product of Humbert’s increasingly disturbed imagination, Langella has the thankless task of assuming instantly grotesque proportions in a climax that becomes laughable.
Irons effectively shows both Humbert’s joyous return to adolescence alongside Lolita and his desperation, but is acting in an emotional vacuum. The passion fails to materialize on screen, with the relationship ultimately seeming routine as the duo’s travels drag on and on and Lolita’s self-serving capriciousness becomes harder to take. Simultaneously impressive and abrasive, Swain takes the role in her stride, but is invariably more bratty than sensual. Her Lolita appears always an unfeeling manipulator, and given the character’s almost ruthless hard edges, it seems impossible to accept her ending up in a white-trash, nowhere marriage.
With a couple of notable exceptions such as Lolita reading the funny pages while on naked Humbert’s lap, sex scenes are fairly chaste, implying more than they show. The most amusing of these involves Lolita kneading Humbert’s inner thighs while negotiating a raise in her allowance. Nudity is limited to one strategically lit tussle; Irons for the most part remains rigorously pajama-clad.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of Lyne’s true vocation for the “9-1/2 Weeks” school of screen sensuality is a damning comparison with the most famous image from Kubrick’s film. While Sue Lyon in heart-shaped shades sucking a lollipop defined precocious teen sexuality for generations, Swain lasciviously gulping a banana seems merely like cheap vulgarity.