Looking for Lolita


Adrian Lyne’s Lolita will get its long-sought U.S. theatrical release following its Showtime screening next month. So while the years-long delay brings to mind Groucho Marx’s famous quote (“I’ve put off reading Lolita for six years, till she’s 18”), it’s also raised the following thoughts on what Nabokov and his prized nymphet have unwittingly wrought and what it all means for this latest Lolita.

Regarding Humbert

When just about every actress between the ages of 10 and 18 has at one point or another been labeled “Lolita-esque” or a “nymphet,” who needs another version of Nabokov’s ecstatically insinuating and audience-implicating immorality tale? Who needs to watch the pathetic Humbert Humbert tell his queasy lies and self-justifications when guilt-free, skin-filled ironyfests like Wild Things and Scream and The Opposite of Sex are ready to be viewed? Perhaps it’s less the pedophilia than the grim and grimmer turns of Nabokov’s story that American distributors objected to. In any case, Dominique Swain, the young star at the center of Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, is filmed more leeringly in John Woo’s Face/Off (as John Travolta’s rebellious daughter) than she is in the film that was widely deemed too hot for American theaters.

In his afterword to the American edition of the novel, Nabokov declared that he detested didactic fiction and protested that “Lolita has no moral in tow.” But of course it is a highly moral affair–it just isn’t the redemptive Hollywood kind, as Nabokov must have figured out when Stanley Kubrick and producer James Harris asked for an alternate ending. Rather than play out the book’s sordid-sad fates, in which the two principals die, they asked him for a screenplay that would marry off Lolita and Humbert (with an adult relative’s blessing no less). Kubrick later confessed, “Had I realized how severe the [censorship] limitations were going to be, I probably wouldn’t have made the film.”

Of course it’s all very fitting that Lyne’s Lolita–which was filmed in 1995–has had such difficulty getting seen here. It took three years from its French publication for the novel to be published in the United States–40 years ago next month. That the novel also immediately caused a sensation and became a pop-culture touchstone is of no real help to the Lyne Lolita. The movie will no doubt be censured, like Kubrick’s version was, by both Nabokovian purists and people who purposefully confuse representation with endorsement.

–Abby McGanney Nolan

Lyne Readings

Originally a project at Carolco, a production company that went bankrupt, Adrian Lyne’s $58 million Lolita was rescued and fully financed by Pathé, the French communications giant. After its world premiere in Spain last September, Lolita made the rounds in European theaters. No major American distributor would touch the film, however, and no independent could afford it until Goldwyn entered into a partnership with Showtime last week. It’s a measure of how charged the subject of pedophilia has become that the new version of Nabokov’s tale was apparently deemed impolitic, too great a risk in the light of the Christian right’s current child-porn crusade and the specter of conservative opposition. This, in spite of the fact that although Lyne’s film may portray Humbert as sympatheticon some level, it doesn’t in any way condone his monstrous acts. Moreover, from the director of Such mainstream entertainments as Flashdance and Fatal Attraction, this risk-taking departure is one of the least explicit accounts of sexual obsession in recent cinema history.

Asked about the difficulties in landing a distributor, Lyne says, “At first I had heads of studios sending me letters that it was my best work, and then these people just gradually faded away. Fear spreads. I’m thrilled with Goldwyn’s courage, but of course Hollywood is not renown for its courageousness. When there’s a contentious subject like this, it’s easier to sit back. I talked about it with Michael Douglas not long ago. He made the interesting observation that nowadays is a lot like the ’50s–things are going well, it’s boom times and people don’t want to rock the boat. But it’s a movie that’s been rated R by the MPAA–there’s nothing salacious in it. People may have expected a more sensational movie–it’s not at all a balls-out commercial film.

“I had a lawyer coming in and out of the cutting room during all six weeks of the time I was editing just to make sure there were no problems with what I was doing. It’s a movie I’m proud of. The whole affair doesn’t make sense. There was a pervasive silence about the film in the industry, although people have come around to it in the last couple of months. Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, has been terribly supportive. He thinks his dad would have liked it.”

Asked whether he thinks the release will stir controversy, Lyne says, “I have no idea–I hope not. I think it’s so sad that you can’t make a movie about a contentious subject. Out of debate and argument something constructive might come out. I don’t think there will be a big revelation, but I do think it’s healthy to have it out in the open. The idea of precensorship seems very sinister to me.

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.

Mo Ogrodnik’s Ripe (1997) might have offered some relief from the paranoia surrounding newly nubile females. But beneath its arty veneer, her first feature is punishing and prurient. Violet and Rosie, 14-year-old fraternal twins, escape from a car crash, leaving their mother and their monstrous father to die. Violet, the pretty one, is always flirting–Rosie is a tomboy. When she uses a shovel to smash two rats having sex, you sense a splatterfest is coming. They end up romping around an army base, where a carpenter takes a shine to Violet, while Rosie learns to use a gun. No one warns him that being Lolita’s beau is more than ever a dangerous occupation.

Freeway (1996) is a lowbrow Lolita spinoff with a sense of irony–former Pretty Baby Brooke Shields plays the wife of a sociopath who preys on young girls. Matthew Bright’s demented retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” stars Reese Witherspoon as 15-year-old Vanessa, an aging nymphet with a troubled social profile. Her mother is a prostitute; Mom’s drug-addled boyfriend regularly paws her. When they’re arrested, Vanessa takes to the highway to visit her grandmother. Along the way, her car breaks down and she’s picked up by Bob Wolverine, a blandly creepy reform school counselor: he makes her open up her heart, and then pulls out a knife. But this ferocious Lolita finally rights society’s wrongs.

Jennifer Montgomery’s Art for Teachers of Children (1995) is a film of a different order. This autobiographical “docudrama” explores the affair Montgomery had when she was 14 with photographer Jock Sturges, who was then her prep school freshman adviser. Though she’s no fan of her former “teacher” or his work, which sparked a 1989 FBI investigation for child pornography, Montgomery refused to collaborate with his prosecutors. Instead she retaliated with this strangely ironic and melancholy film about a young girl’s sexual confusion and an older man’s overweening vanity. “There’s nothing more dangerous than boring men who make bad art,” her mother says ruefully, some 15 years after her daughter’s deflowering. The directors of today’sLolitas should take a lesson from her.

–Leslie Camhi