To be frank, the prospect of watching Adrian Lyne’s Lolita, a special screening selected by film festival guest Jeremy Irons, made me a little queasy – and it was not just the priest in clerical collar in the seat beside me. Known for erotic thrillers like 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal, Lyne has a bent for images of very adult, very indulgent sex.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation had always struck me as a dry husk of Vladimir Nabokov’s tale of pedophilic obsession, in which a European academic rents a room from a gauche suburban mother, lusting after her adolescent daughter to operatic extremes. Kubrick’s is a bizarre and uneven production, somehow sanitized of both Nabokov’s perilous eroticism and sweeping romance.
Still, silk sheets and four-poster beds did not feel like the solution to such delicate material. But what Lyne is able to accomplish in his 1997 adaptation, starring Jeremy Irons as Professor Humbert and Dominique Swain as the eponymous nymphette, is a sensual and provocative adaptation, much closer to the seductive shock of the original text than Kubrick was able to achieve.
The film’s greatest asset turns out to be the quality I’d most feared: the explicit sexuality of Humbert and Lo’s relationship, sorely missing from the Kubrick production. Sex has never felt like more important narrative information, in a story built upon unsettling a presumed hierarchy of sexual knowledge and innocence.
Jeremy Irons – an actor who can so effortlessly embody evil when he wants to – grounds Humbert’s yearning in an affable clumsiness. It is a performance without commentary, allowing his audience to forget its own moral compass. Irons’ stare at the young Dolores/Lo/Lola/Lolita feels more like breathless love than sordid lust. Sex feels like a very deliberate progression of his heart’s intentions, not the other way around. His feelings for Lolita consume him from the moment he sets eyes upon her – as irrational as any conventional tale of adult romance.
Humbert’s emotions are visually assembled in Lyne’s montages of sensual detail: a dripping faucet, a peek of underwear, dried bubble gum, the glint of a retainer. The images overwhelm and hypnotize in an excess of inescapable circumstances, moving faster than the speed of logic or propriety. Lyne’s mise-en-scene is like that of the classic melodrama, in which the realization of Humbert and Lo’s affair becomes a burning destiny on the horizon.
But the center of Lyne’s production is Swain’s Lolita. Sue Lyon was a year younger than Swain in Kubrick’s production – Lyon was cast at 14; Swain, at 15. But Lyon’s Lolita is weary and sophisticated, shoving off Humbert’s advances with the knowledge of a vamp twice her age. She does not desire Humbert, adding a very problematic subtext to an already problematic text.
At the story’s outset, Swain’s Lo is much younger than Lyon’s, not only in her appearance but in her unsullied outlook on the world. Her youth adds weight to the illicit nature of every glance and carries Swain and Irons through all the tempestuous swells of juvenile emotion, free of self-consciousness in both its agonies and ecstasies.
As they begin wandering from hotel to hotel, however, Swain’s Lolita gradually unfolds as a distant enigma, returning to Humbert from off-screen implications of sexuality more troubling than what she shares with Humbert. But she is still capable of manipulating Humbert with the performance of purity or youth or whatever she knows he finds irresistible. Swain’s nimble maneuvering through the eruption of Lolita’s secrets shifts the balance of power, drawing Humbert into a paranoid madness from which he never returns
Actually, Lyne handles Nabokov’s meandering third act of a meandering road trip better than Nabokov himself – showing Humbert’s rising panic in setting down roots, the constant motion turning Lolita into a sort of immaterial mirage.
Lyne’s third act also ruptures the audience’s complicity in Humbert’s transgression. As the romance starts to feel more like mania, in the way most Adrian Lyne films turn conventional romantic beginnings into an addictive heat, it finally becomes evident that we should have never consented to Lolita’s consent ourselves
And has the seductive power of film ever been more apropos?
In a question-and-answer with Irons after the screening, Irons remarked the film “really makes you think about why we adhere to these social conventions anyway.” The priest beside me nodded in pensive agreement. The seduction was complete.