Looking for Lolita

On the nature of nymph mania

The European running time was 137 minutes. Has anything been trimmed for the States? "Not a frame has been cut. I spent a year on the final cut, and it's pretty much the way it should be. I think Jeremy is wonderful in it. I'm incredibly proud of Dominique Swain's performance. I love the movie. I feel proud and lucky to have made it. Probably today I couldn't have."

--Elliott Stein

The Children's Hour

For Nabokov's self-proclaimed "nympholept," the ideal window for nymphic desirability is nine to 14. But there's a big difference between nine and 14, and it's called puberty. Dolores Haze was 12 as written, but when you cast a movie like Lyne's Lolita, you tend to err on the side of maturing hormones. As you should--using pedophilia as plot is one thing, using real pubescents in movies featuring simulated sex is another. "To make a real 12-year-old play such a part in public would be sinful and immoral," Nabokov said during preproduction on Kubrick's Lolita, "and I will never consent to it." Although Dominique Swain turned 15 while shooting the new Lolita's rather daintily arranged sex scenes, Lyne nonetheless crept into territory Kubrick avoided and Nabokov probably would've shuddered at, thereby running up against child-porn statutes and risking a replay of Oklahoma's screaming meemies over 12-year-old David Bennent's faceful of flowering girlhood in The Tin Drum.

Teenagers do fuck, but until puberty rips the childproof lid off the vial of easy moralizing, all other bets are terminated: let's say children 11 and under should be inviolate islands of extrasexual safety, grown-ups who get off on them are diseased miscreants, and movies engaging the two in carnal conflict are patently irresponsible. From the elliptically depicted pedophilia in Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss to the implied atrocities inflicted upon Isabella Rossellini's silent son ("Donny! No! No! Donny, Mummy loves you!") in Blue Velvet, doodling a child is as unshowable in practice as it is monstrously taboo in concept. Despite the filmmakers' best intentions, the semigraphic child-rape scene in Bastard Out of Carolina forces you out of the movie and into concerned empathy for the actress.

The iconic molestations of uncomfortable youngsters in Fellini Satyricon, Makavejev's Sweet Movie, and the obscure 1972 Japanese undergrounder Emperor Tomato Ketchup notwithstanding, visual portrayals of kid sex are unsurprisingly rare. The 12-year-old­and-nude Brooke Shields had no sex scenes in Pretty Baby, but she was certainly the center of sexual attention. What's more common is an unconscious swooning over nubility, the rueful, are-you-sure-I-can't-fuck-her-now? romanticism that Timothy Hutton harbored for Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls, and that Luc Besson's camera harbored for Portman's pantied tush in The Professional. Consider as well the unsavory gaze director John Duigan leveled on crystal-eyed, 10-year-old Mischa Barton's nude figure in the recent Lawn Dogs, in which the entire cast of caricatured suburban clods go ballistic over her bonding with lithe landscaper Sam Rockwell. Their dread seems apt, though perhapswould be more appropriately focused on behind-the-camera personnel. With this scenario, and given Duigan's softcore résumé, who can escape the whiff of Humbertian passion?

--Michael Atkinson

Sirens of the Suburbs

The country that invented the teenage years also inspired Lolita. Humbert Humbert's adored, insidious nymphet blossomed in the hothouse of grace and corruption that was postwar American suburbia. Nabokov's ecstatic prose captures the romance manquébetween the Old World's moral leprosy and the New World's triumphant callowness.

But we live in an age of victims' rights. Humbert's Lolita, for the most part, whimpered and coyly submitted. Today's cinematic nymphets may not have heard of Amy Fisher, but at least a minority of these minors attempt to avenge their age and sex. In the imaginations of their (mostly male) creators, fear of society's sanction has been transformed into fear of a young girl's capacity for manipulation and violence.

Earnest Lolitas have wandered through the recent films of Atom Egoyan. But the doe-eyed daddy's girls of Exotica (a schoolgirl-stripper) and The Sweet Hereafter (a paraplegic­incest survivor) maintain an essential core of innocence in a world that's irredeemably fallen. (Egoyan also executive-produced another variation on the genre, which screened at Cannes this year: Babyface, about a mother who shares a lover with her 13-year-old daughter.)

Other Lolitas appear to have been born jaded or possessed. The Crush (1993) introduced Alicia Silverstone as Darian, a 14-year-old with terrifying powers. A young reporter (insipid Cary Elwes) meets her when he rents the guest house of her parents' Tudor mansion. But beware of girls whose names resemble those of wealthy Connecticut suburbs. Darian, smitten, steals his picture and begins rewriting his articles. Our all-American hero is no Humbert Humbert--though he's tempted by her blond, blue-eyed baby fat, he certainly knows better. Darian's crush soon escalates into psychiatric disorder as, in revenge, she attempts to frame him.

Wicked (1997), which premiered at Sundance last winter, is also set in the land of manicured lawns, pastel stucco, and poor JonBenet Ramsey. Lolita becomes Electra in the character of 15-year-old Julia (over-the-hill by Humbert's standards), whose mother is murdered under mysterious circumstances. Julia adjusts by donning her mother's evening gowns and cooking for the father she adores. When he spurns her adolescent charms, more nastiness is in store.

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