The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: October 1 - 8, 1998

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Lolita seduces

Nabokov's masterpiece crosses the line

by Peter Keough

LOLITA, Directed by Adrian Lyne. Written by Stephen Schiff adapted from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. With Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, and Frank Langella. A Samuel Goldwyn Film release. At the Kendall Square.

The new adaptation of Lolita has struggled against so many obstacles before it reached the screen that whether it is any good seems almost irrelevant. Pedophilia was just the beginning of its problems -- what about Adrian Lyne? Was the director who blew Glenn Close away in a bathtub in Fatal Attraction the best person to deal with a subjective narrative that's immersed in the most sublime English prose of this half-century and told from an utterly unreliable narrative point of view? Was the guy who sent Kim Basinger crawling after greenbacks up to translating onto film this masterpiece of sexual obsession?

Some misgivings are eased in the first few minutes. Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons), rueful, resigned, and magnificently ruined, drives his 1948 Plymouth "woody" down a rolling highway past shimmering landscapes, his hands bloodstained and clutching a bobby pin, swerving from side to side on the road with deliberate indifference. "Lolita," he says in voiceover, "Light of my life, fire of my loins. My soul, my sin."

Moral Schiff

The obvious question -- what's the number of your agent? -- I never asked. Stephen Schiff, former film editor of the Boston Phoenix and screenwriter for Adrian Lyne's new adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, still had plenty to talk about. Being on the receiving end of moralistic attacks, for example -- not just for his role in bringing to the screen one of the most controversial films in Hollywood history, but for reviewing such films.

"Feminist groups picketed the Phoenix for my review of Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill," he recalls. "They also graffiti'd my name somewhere. I remember all that -- going on the talk shows and having angry women call me. In your archives, probably, there's this follow-up article about how I became an enemy of the people. I was pretty surprised about the reaction. I've been more surprised about Lolita, though."

And well he might be. A high-budgeted studio adaptation of a prestigious work of literature by a major director with big stars and positive reviews, it's been kept from the big screen by the subtlest and most insidious kind of censorship -- self-imposed commercial cowardice. "Nothing like this has ever happened before. There has been all sorts of governmental censorship, often with movies of a much smaller scale, but for a movie of this dimension and high profile, not to mention budget, to be given an R rating with no problem and then de facto banned by the industry itself is a unique event.

"I think it happened for a number of reasons. The broad one is that at this moment we seem to have a shrinking culture, and for my entire adulthood we've had an expanding culture. In a way the two Lolitas to me are like bookends of a cultural moment. The Kubrick Lolita happens in 1962, when things are just beginning to loosen up and be liberated. That's the sensibility of that movie, this kind of wink and smirk, naughty glee -- oh look at what we can get away with -- even though there's nothing more salacious in it than a peck on the cheek.

"And now, the other Lolita comes at a moment when suddenly the culture seems to be getting smaller. And that which has been brought out from under the rug, we're being told, must go back under. When we began showing Lolita to the movie studios, it was March 1997. December 1996, three months before, was when JonBenet Ramsey was murdered -- the air was full of that, and full of the Belgian sex murders and a dawning awareness of how much pedophilia was a problem, as it had always been.

"There are lots of other factors. We got these raves from studio heads, but when it came time to step up to the plate and distribute the thing, the doors closed. It began to become a de facto banning. They were worried about what had happened when feminists went after The People vs. Larry Flynt. It was felt it crippled the film's box office and its chances for awards at the end of the year. They were cowardly, but not cowardly without reason in the current atmosphere."

Schiff notes the irony that the same people who would condemn his film are responsible for polluting the media with the far more graphic and demoralizing details of the Monica Lewinsky case. "The so-called spokespeople for the culture, when the Monica Lewinsky story broke, thought, `This is the most shocking thing in the world! They'll hound him out of office in a week.' Finally, they had the brilliance to turn to the culture and poll them, and the culture came back and said, `Shut up and let him do his work.' "

Schiff wants those "spokespeople" to let him do his work, too, which is to subject the extremes of human behavior to the clarifying and redeeming power of art.

"Of course Humbert's a monster, but it was very important to me to make him a sympathetic monster. I think one of the great things that art can do and literature can do is put you deeply inside someone whom you would never otherwise be inside of. It expands us by making us understand that which we cannot understand even though we condemn it."

It's the first of the film's generous quotations from the novel, and from that moment on it will be impossible to hear Nabokov's prose in any other voice than Irons's. This capturing of the voice of the novel goes a long way to making its despicable events not only comprehensible but tragically moving -- as well as defusing the film's lapses in taste. Throw in Lyne's (for the most part) uncharacteristic visual restraint and inspiration, Stephen Schiff's shrewd screenplay, and solid performances headed by Irons's best since Dead Ringers and Lolita the movie comes close to transforming the sordid case history of a fortysomething European pedant obsessed with a precocious but otherwise ordinary 12-year-old girl into a universal ode to loss and desire.

For Humbert is not so much a pervert as a romantic. In one of his best sequences, Lyne relates the explanation of Humbert's tendencies -- an adolescent love that ended with his beloved Annabel's sudden death from typhoid -- with a gold-tinged, fade-to-black series of flashback episodes that give credence to what could have come across as pat rationalization. Years later, adrift in small-town American academe, Humbert, already an acknowledged fancier of "nymphets" (sexually awakened girls of the same age as the late Annabel), meets his match in Dolores Haze (newcomer Dominique Swain, a bit horsy but deftly balancing guile and ingenuousness). In one of Lyne's too frequent kitschy groaners, Lolita, as the ready linguist Humbert will dub her, is spotted lolling under a lawn sprinkler, more a candidate for a wet-T-shirt contest than a Dantesque vision.

But then, the point of the book and movie might be that both are one and the same. Lolita is the daughter of Charlotte (Melanie Griffith, making blowziness a virtue), Humbert's widowed landlady, a vulgarian jealous of her daughter and hot for Humbert. He exploits Charlotte to gain access to Lolita, and the awkward dance between avuncularism and eroticism between him and the teasing Lolita aches with possibility and frustration. A catastrophe intercedes (Lyne's handling of this accident, as with a later scene of violence, is subtle, shocking, and surreal), Humbert's dream comes true, and he flees across America with his illicit beloved, pursued, it turns out, by more than his guilty conscience.

This odyssey is long and troubled not just for the runaway couple. Nabokov set his story in a late-'40s America that was as alien, appalling, and as attractive to him as, well, a 12-year-old American girl is to his hero, and he reproduces the milieu with hallucinatory accuracy. The filmmakers are less rigorous. Anachronisms coupled with Lyne's predilection for the garishly trite (a scene with a bug zapper is especially egregious, and Lolita's food fetishism à la 9-1/2 weeks is laughable) come close to smashing the artifice to pieces. On the other hand, Schiff creditably fills the gaps left by the text in the details of the pair's lives on the road together -- the bizarre but eerily familiar mix of parent/lover, idol/annoyance that is their relationship.

As for the sin of pedophilia, it goes neither unpunished nor uncomprehended. As Lyne suggests, the distance between Humbert's point of view and reality grows the farther he and Lolita flee, and so does his awareness of his culpability and doom. In the inexorably wrenching ending, a return to the opening images that fulfills the promise of their poetry, Humbert realizes that his love for children is compensation for the loss of childhood itself, the innocence before words and images got in the way. For most of us, there is the consolation of art -- which Lolita, both Lyne's and Nabokov's, fulfills.

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