Information below is taken from the following link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056193/
Vladimir Nabokov; Stanley Kubrick
James Mason; Shelley Winters; Sue Lyon
Humbert Humbert (James Mason), intellectual, professor, middle-aged man, a paedophile lusts after 15 year old Dolores Haze (Sue Lyon), eloquently nick-named: ‘Lolita’.
The films of Stanley Kubrick are oft criticised for being ‘emotionally cold’. Personally, I have always found these claims to be ridiculous. Objective they certainly are, but cold? 2001 is one of the most awe-inspiring works I’ve ever seen, A Clockwork Orange twisted my emotions throughout, and Eyes Wide Shut stayed with me for a good two months after viewing. Even Barry Lyndon, which is quite clearly the most distancing of his films has emotions oozing throughout it.
Kubrick shoots films as if he were shooting stills of a crime-scene: he puts the camera at a distance so all the characters are in view amongst a meticulously lit and scrupulously composed backdrop.
Classic use of distancing being used in Barry Lyndon (1975)
More distancing methods used in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)
We are thus forced to question the characters, but the emotion comes from the fact that we view them like ‘bugs under a microscope’ (as one critic excellently put it). The ironies, hypocrisies, stupidities, obsessions, angst, paranoia and rage of every character always seeps through. The best example of this is in that long and pivotal scene in Eyes Wide Shut where Bill is told that Alice has contemplated sleeping with another man. By being distanced, I learned more about the character of Bill, and thus, I felt emotion. Bill fails to see that it’s not just men that have an intense desire for sex lurking inside of them.
Like Eyes Wide Shut, Lolita is about male sexual obsession, and presents it with great sympathy and snide sarcasm. Though doubt, probably more sarcasm than Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick shows the lustful emotions of the humorously named, ‘Humbert Humbert’ with moments of such obvious subtlety that it borders on self-parody and mocking the religious and right-wing censors of the time – like he’s bluntly trying to get away with as much as possible without crossing the line. It’s not just suggestive, it’s very suggestive. Take the opening shot (similar to that of The Graduate), consisting only of a teenager’s soft, shining foot. A middle-aged hand delicately applies nail varnish to it, subtly rubbing its fingers against the skin as much as humanly possible. Or the shot where Humbert Humbert kisses his wife, about to make love to her, whilst all the time looking at a photograph of his wife’s daughter, Lolita, in view. The joke being that during sex, he’s not concentrating on his wife, but instead what his imagination can do. And what about the first time we see the title character? Laying in the sun, clothed in a bikini, a sun-hat, and of course, wearing those heart-shaped glasses, whilst, licking a lollipop. Oh, Kubrick you.
Sue Lyon in Lolita
There’s a great shot in this scene, where the camera is placed behind Lolita so that Lolita’s mother and Humbert Humbert (blocked behind her) are in view. If you look closely, you can see Humbert Humbert’s eyes twitch with nervousness and sexual tension – all at a self-knowingly slutty 15 year-old girl. I think the point being that Lolita is the sexual-predator here as opposed to Humbert Humbert – who merely comes across as pathetic, and idiotically possessive. Throughout the movie, Humbert Humbert seems to care more about love and relationships, whilst Lolita seems to be driven by sex – aided by that sly allure she has.
I’m reminded of the reasons why Chris Morris made the television special of Brass Eye named ‘Paedogeddon’ – an episode mocking how paedophilia is sensationalised by the media and how children are presented as being objects of such glowing innocence and naivety, that you’d expect them to grow angel wings, a halo and make Jesus Christ look like a sinner.
Chris Morris’ sharp satire on the way paedophilia was sensationalised in the media
The film slowly unravels, charting Humbert Humbert’s paranoia and obsessions building. It’s surprising how throughout the film, you forget that one of the main themes of it and the book is paedophilia itself. What’s unsettling here isn’t the age gap but the power-play between the couple. Humbert Humbert wants everything his way and Lolita would gladly disagree. Is the point here being that the notion of age-gaps in relationships being something predatorial is a ludicrous idea, and what is more sexually sinister are 1950s gender-roles? I am unsure. Kubrick films have to be watched multiple times.
I think the fatal flaw of the film is the time in which it was made. Censorship is such a pointless affair. People know of paedophilia, so why prevent presenting it? Throughout, you’d probably consider Lolita to be of 18 years old, if it wasn’t for the fact that on the DVD box, the internet and the film’s taglines we are told that she is 15? Yes, the film is suggestive throughout, but implying something can only go so far. I think the film could have played out like A Clockwork Orange, simultaneously unsettling and hilarious: the film would have been more interesting if Humbert Humbert’s sexual desires appeared to be more sinister. On screen we would have had two sexual predators as opposed to one, and the question surrounding the morality of age-gaps would have been more forceful, intense and dilemma-inducing. The novel is told from first person perspective, Humbert Humbert hypnotises the reader throughout – I think the same would have worked well in the film. We never seem to understand Humbert Humbert’s motives – I think the film would have been interesting if we got inside his head via the use of voice-over. Again, A Clockwork Orange springs and leaps to mind.
Also, the film is too slow in some areas. This is typical of Kubrick: Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut are above the two-and-a-half hour mark, but this is because they have a lot of story to tell. Would the humour have been intensified if the film was more rigorously speedy in its pacing?
I feel that the film does come across as cold because it isn’t as emotionally complex for the audience as it could have been. Thus the objective direction doesn’t present us with intriguing characters to contemplate but instead ironic situations which lack the depth of Kubrick’s later work.
I think it’s also interesting to watch this, whilst knowing that some of his later films are my favourites. I can see the beginnings of a directorial style, a seed being planted, knowing throughout that something great lurks within. 37 years later, Kubrick made a masterpiece.
Kubrick’s last and final film is a masterpiece: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Not nearly as complex as it should have been. I’m left with the thought that the film should produce a moral-dilemma, similar to that of A Clockwork Orange. However, watch this for the beginnings of a great-director’s talent slowly churning: the compositions, the choice of music, the meticulously slow-pacing (although this doesn’t always work here), and of course the great performances from James Mason, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon.