Controversy has always swirled around "Lolita." After Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel in 1955, it was banned in most countries. It was not published in the United States until 1958. When Stanley Kubrick made the first movie version of it in 1962, the director ran into a multitude of censorship problems. Then, when Showtime Pictures refilmed the book in 1997 under director Adrian Lyne, they couldn't get an American distributor for it and eventually aired it on their own Showtime cable channel. Both film versions of "Lolita" are now available on DVD, and while the Kubrick account is still more fun in its own eccentric way, this new one more than holds its own--a more sensual, poetic vision of the story.
Nabokov's stock in trade was the tragicomedy, combining elements of tragedy and comedy, and "Lolita" is one of the best examples. The new movie stars Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert, a man obsessively in love with a young girl. His name should be our first clue that the story is not to be taken entirely seriously. Humbert narrates in a voice-over, using words taken largely from the text, making it more intimately his own story. Outwardly, he is a cultured, sophisticated, mild-mannered professor of languages. Inwardly, he is bowl of Jell-O, hopelessly and incurably attracted to the nymphet, Lolita. She is played by Dominque Swain, all sweetness and innocence masking a manipulative vixen, a flirt, and a tease. Both she and Sue Lyon in the Kubrick film were about fourteen when they made these films, a couple of years older than the Lolita of the book, probably in deference to the censors.
Humbert becomes so infatuated with the girl that he is willing to marry her mother, played by Melanie Griffith, in order to be near her. Ms. Griffith is the only person in the film who seems physically ill-suited for her role. Humbert describes her as a "fat cow," a depiction that hardly applies to Ms. Griffith, no matter how much makeup she's forced to wear. Anyway, the mother conveniently dies when a police car runs her down! Humbert is overjoyed. His dreams have come true. For a time he and Lolita live a life of bliss, father and stepdaughter traveling around the country together, finally settling down in their respective schools. All goes well, that is, until the entrance of the fourth and final character, Clare Quilty, played by Frank Langella. Quilty is a sinister, shadowy figure, always on the fringes of the plot, a successful playwright and child pornographer who turns Humbert's fantasy world upside down.
Unlike Kubrick's bizarre, black-humored interpretation, Lyne's is more graceful, slower paced, wistful, and reflective. Not that there isn't still space for some mordant levity. When Humbert is called into the office of Lolita's school principal, for instance, he is every minute expecting to be found out for the lecher he is. Instead, he is told that Lolita needs to learn more about "sexual reproduction," and that "You, as her father, ought to take this matter well in hand." However, in spite of its R rating, Lyne's "Lolita" is not much more explicit than Kubrick's older version. This may seem surprising considering that Lyne's previous films ("9 ½ Weeks," "Fatal Attraction," "Flashdance") were not exactly subtle.
The director tells us of the great pains taken in the new production to protect the young actress from any possible compromising situations. There is virtually no female nudity present, an adult body double standing in for Ms. Swain in one extremely brief and dimly lit nude scene. In fact, the only actual nudity shown is a quick glimpse of Langella at the very end of the story. Not a pretty sight. As for sexual activity in the film, it is almost entirely suggestive, one such encounter made manifest by facial expressions alone. Yet almost every scene is erotically charged; even the washing of an automobile windshield has sensual overtones. The rating, then, is mostly the result of the film's numerous innuendoes as well as the delicacy of its subject matter, rather than any gross sexual content.
The film's distributors, Trimark Home Video, present the Panavision picture in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The colors are very fine grained, ultra smooth, and in some instances ultra soft. The low-key focus enhances the story's romantic, hazy, sometimes surrealistic quality.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also quite good, limited for the most part to dialogue, of course, but contributing a nice, ambient bloom to Ennio Morricone's orchestrations and coming to life in various rear-channel effects such as thunder and rain.
In addition to the film, Trimark include a full-feature commentary in which the director does his best to explain the tightrope he had to walk in keeping a film with such questionable material within the bounds of good taste. Equally intriguing is a series of deleted scenes, most of which could easily have been left in the final cut, like one where Humbert is fantasizing about murdering his wife during a swim. Without this fantasy sequence, what remains of the scene is somewhat pointless. Also included are several screen tests and rehearsal shots; talent bios; a short, eight-minute featurette; script images; scene selections; subtitles in English, French, and Spanish; and a pair of trailers, one for "Lolita" and one for another Trimark release, "Twice Upon a Yesterday." All of these features are accessed through an imaginative set of menu screens that are themselves rather sensual.
This new "Lolita" proceeds from a dreamy, pensive mood at its beginning, through one of apparent contentment and joy in the middle, and on to a nightmarish conclusion. While I profess to liking Kubrick's rendition a little better, possibly because of its more wicked sense of humor and its script by Nabokov himself, Adrian Lyne's adaptation works fine, too, in its more atmospheric way. Since the DVD brings out the best in it, I can recommend the film to interested parties with little hesitation.