Director: Adrian Lyne
Writer: Stephen Schiff (from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel)
Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella
Lyne’s Lolita has no less than three beginnings. The title sequence shows a defeated Humbert Humbert—beautifully played with weary-eyed fatalism by Jeremy Irons—weaving his car along a valley road, reminiscing about the titular girl. “But there might have been no Lolita at all had I not first met Annabel,” Humbert informs us by voice-over as the scene shifts to Cannes in 1921.
Humbert meets Annabel Lee, also fourteen years old, and gets his first whiff of sex when Annabel exposes herself to him in a boatshed. But Annabel catches typhus and dies, destroying the adolescent Humbert’s world and creating a permanent negative connection in his malleable psyche between sex and death, much like Marcello in The Conformist, Anaïs Pingot in À Ma Soeur! and the Trant sisters in The Man in the Moon. Humbert will spend the rest of his life trying to return to that unresolved formative moment, knowing full well what will happen should he ever succeed: “The poison was in the wound, you see—and the wound wouldn’t heal.”
The main plot engages with Humbert’s arrival in New England in 1947 to teach French literature at a private college. He lodges with Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith), a young widow in a plunging dress, all bust and rouged lips. “At twenty dollars a month you can’t beat the price,” Charlotte purrs with a suggestive glance as she leads handsome Humbert out of the spare room and up the garden path. Charlotte’s pubescent daughter Dolores lies on the grass reading a magazine, soft-focus sprinklers spurting onto her, a soaked see-through dress clinging to her skin. Lyne’s quasi-soft-porn directorial style is perfectly suited to the moment. Humbert is paralysed.
A close-up of Dolores’ magazine reveals her own preoccupation: men. She glances up at him and cracks a grin that sparkles with the silvery glint of braces. Echoing Brandon’s fascination with Lana Tisdel in Boys Don’t Cry, the camera zooms in on Humbert at giddying speed. His long-lost Annabel has been found.
Why does Dolores—soon to be known as Lo then Lolita—exert such a magnetic pull on Humbert? Her own beauty aside, the obvious factor is Annabel. But two other influences must also be factored in. Firstly, Humbert was raised in the profoundly sex-negative world of 1920s Britain; and secondly, he’s sensitive, as indicated by his choice of career.
Human sensitivity is not a widely recognized factor but it has a huge impact on our lives. Elaine N. Aron PhD has documented her extensive research into human sensitivity in The Highly Sensitive Person: “One in every five people is born with a heightened sensitivity: they are often gifted with great intelligence, intuition and imagination, but there are also drawbacks. Frequently they come across as aloof, shy or moody and suffer from low self-esteem because they find it hard to express themselves in a society dominated by excess and stress.” They tend to have a rich inner life—often reflected in a love of art, music or, in Humbert’s case, literature—but can be overwhelmed by busy public spaces, such as pubs, cinemas and supermarkets. They have a heightened awareness of society’s unspoken rules—including its sexual covenants—and of how their own feelings violate those rules. As a consequence they are more heavily impacted by sexual shame, with a detrimental effect on their self-esteem and a tendency for introversion.
The highly sensitive Humbert would have seen the incidents with Annabel through a particularly skewed filter. Although her self-exposure and death were entirely separate, Humbert’s pliable young psyche would have interpreted the latter as punishment for the former—and not just for Annabel. Like Marcello in The Conformist and Renato in Malèna, the impressionable Humbert experienced a profoundly painful shock as the ‘wrongness of sex’ branded itself into his psyche at a formative age, stalling his natural development towards healthy sexual adulthood.
Like Marcello in The Conformist and Renato in Malèna, the impressionable Humbert experienced a profoundly painful shock as the ‘wrongness of sex’ branded itself into his psyche at a formative age, stalling his natural development towards healthy sexual adulthood
Humbert thus became a typical bachelor of his day, avoiding sex (and, by extension, women) and immersing himself in literature—a long and winding road of sexual repression that ultimately led to New England, Charlotte Haze’s garden and Lolita lying on the soaking wet lawn. All along there would have been a deep, nagging pain: the repressed seeking an outlet and ultimately finding it in that lithe young girl in a cling-film dress. “H-how much did you say the room was?” he stammers to Charlotte. Ten minutes into Lolita and Humbert Humbert is doomed.
The next sequence, the film’s strongest, focuses on Humbert’s growing obsession with Lolita and how mother and daughter Haze react to his presence. Dolores responds with seemingly casual provocations, for—as Humbert has correctly divined—she is a nymphet: an adolescent girl attuned to her burgeoning sexuality and its mesmerising effect on some men. Humbert confesses to his diary that he is such a man. Every inch of the Haze household becomes a minefield, at once profoundly desirable and teasingly painful: it’s the Catch-22 of Sexcatraz all over again. Female underwear drip-dries in the bathroom. Pink pyjama bottoms litter the landing.
Lolita sits in the kitchen slurping ice cream, a milky white line above her lips and her legs agonisingly uncrossed. In a brilliant performance, Dominique Swain simultaneously inhabits the worlds of a gawky teenager and a sexually confident young woman, the flame that the moth of Jeremy Irons’ Humbert irresistibly circles. Noticing the cosy relationship developing between Humbert and her daughter, and with her own designs on the former, Charlotte packs the latter off to boarding school. But Charlotte isn’t done with the bold strokes. While out for a day she sends Humbert a note professing her love, instructing him to either reciprocate or leave.
A fortnight later Mrs Haze becomes Mrs Humbert and the shiny new ring on her wedding finger socially legitimises her sexual interest in Humbert. He responds like a vet dealing with an irascible elephant, tranquilising her with sleeping pills and writing vitriolic denunciations in his diary—which, of course, Charlotte finds. She ends their brief marriage and vows that Humbert will never see Dolores again; for the second time his world comes crashing down. But then Humbert has a stroke of luck. Lyne plays the moment for laughs: he pours a stiff drink while Charlotte, mindless with rage, strides across the road to the mailbox. The ring of the telephone disturbs Humbert. He sets down his whiskey, wanders into the conservatory and answers it. Expecting Charlotte to have returned by now, he calls out that “there’s a man on the phone saying you’ve been killed.” There’s no reply.
With Charlotte’s exit the only barrier to Humbert’s sexual conquest of Lolita is his own self-restraint. Thus begins the second phase of his intoxication. This steady cranking up of pressure is a characteristic feature of ignoring the return of the repressed: it knocks on the door of conscious awareness ever more loudly. Jeremy Irons plays Humbert with a winning mixture of helpless vacillation and weary ennui; hopelessly besotted with her, yet longing to be free of his endless sexual yearning.
The next sequence follows the battle between Humbert’s burgeoning desire and his crumbling self-control. He whisks Lolita away from school and checks into a country hotel where a mix-up (no, a parapraxis!) forces them to share a bed. Humbert struggles with his conscience, putting Lolita in a vulnerable situation (as his desire triumphs) then trying to resist taking advantage of it (as his shame retaliates). This is Elena in À Ma Soeur! initially rejecting Fernando’s sexual entreaties all over again; like Elena, Humbert’s urges eventually win out—but not just yet. “Gentle women of the jury,” he pleads to the audience, “if my happiness could have talked it would have filled that hotel with a deafening roar. My only regret is that I did not immediately… leave the town, the country, the planet, that very night.”
According to society’s sexual covenants, Humbert should have fled from Lolita’s perilous presence. He didn’t, partly because of the bliss of her nearness, and partly because he unconsciously knew that no matter how far he ran he would sooner or later find another Annabel, another Dolores, another Lolita. He has spent a lifetime trying to conform to his society’s sexual covenants but it’s too painful; for the unfortunate Humbert the pressure to transgress is overwhelming.
Even more unfortunately for Humbert, the enigmatic playwright Claire Quilty (Frank Langella) is staying at the same hotel and he, too, has an eye for a nymphet. Quilty broods over the rest of Lolita like a Georgia thunderstorm waiting to break. “Where the hell d’you get her?” Quilty mumbles when Humbert strolls onto the veranda to escape the intoxicating presence in his room. “What?” blurts Humbert. “The weather’s getting better,” Quilty clarifies. It’s the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game that will lead Humbert to a winding valley road and, like a snake eating its own tail, the first of the film’s many beginnings.
Humbert returns to his room and manages to resist Lolita. The next morning, however, his resistance crumbles. But sex with Lolita only compounds Humbert’s problems. He doesn’t understand that the fourteen-year-old Dolores is a living mirror of the sexual trauma he suffered at exactly the same age. His unconscious has been calling out to him all his adult life, trying to return to that moment when the young Humbert’s natural sexual development was interrupted by the seismic shock of Annabel’s death. All he’s aware of is ‘sex’ and ‘Lolita’; Humbert puts the two together but scrambles the message; it’s not ‘have sex with fourteen-year-old Lolita’ but ‘Lolita is mirroring your psychosexual wound from when you were fourteen’. And so the wound remains infected.
Once Humbert and Lolita’s relationship becomes sexual it goes into a long, slow decline—and with it the film. Like the hospitalisation of Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet and Paul’s murder in Unfaithful, the dissolution of the film’s fundamental dynamic—Humbert’s quest for sex with a substitute Annabel—deprives Lolita of its narrative drive. The film toils as Humbert resorts to money and force to keep Lolita compliant. The sequence resolves when she is hospitalised overnight with a virus. When Humbert returns the next morning Lolita has gone. Humbert searches long and hard for her, driving through a scorched-earth landscape that matches the searing pain of his separation, but the trail goes cold.
The story resumes three years later when Humbert receives a letter from Lolita asking for money. Humbert calls on her at a ramshackle house. Lolita has matured; she’s now married and her belly bulges with a forthcoming child. Humbert learns that her abductor was Claire Quilty. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury… I regret all that I did before that last goodbye in Colemont—but I regret nothing of what came after.” Humbert is now on a one-way ticket. He murders Quilty in an overlong sequence then it’s onto the winding valley road with the police in pursuit, but Humbert has no will to resist. He stops in a field of cows and a letting go takes place. Like Robert in The Comfort of Strangers relief washes over Humbert at the thought of spending the rest of his life in jail, unable to transgress against society’s sexual covenants.
Like Auto Focus, Paul Schrader’s biopic of Bob Crane, Lyne’s is a compassionate reading of Humbert Humbert. Unlike his other forays into sexual shame included here, Unfaithful and Indecent Proposal, Lolita sensitively examines the socially transgressive cravings of men like Humbert. Although he is a predator he is also a prisoner, tortured for every moment of his life by the sexual yearning trapped inside him at fourteen. As Freud observed, our psychosexual wounds constantly seek external outlets such as Humbert found in Lolita so that they may be recognised, released and healed. The latter didn’t happen to Humbert but Lyne, at last, is on the right track. Let’s follow it to the New York subway and the one film that, on its title alone, demands inclusion in Sexcatraz: Steve McQueen’s Shame.