Cinema: Ho Hum, Lo'll make you glum
Sunday 10 May 1998
Nabokov's plot remains intact: mild-mannered paedophile Humbert Humbert (Irons, giving the performance of his career) marries his landlady, Charlotte Haze (a frowzy, blowsy Melanie Griffith), in order to satisfy his infatuation with her daughter, Dolores (Dominique Swain). In a twist of fate that suggests that God, too, has a thing about underage girls, Charlotte is accidentally killed, moments after discovering Humbert's secret passion. Her death allows Hum to take Dolores/Lolita on a sexual tour of America's grubbiest motels, until she is poached by the monstrous figure of Clare Quilty (Frank Langella, looking like a blood- bloated lamprey to which someone has added a kohl-pencil moustache).
There is, however, one important revision. Nabokov's Lolita is 12. Lyne's is 14. This, I think, makes a big difference. What struck me about Dominique Swain, as she popped out her brace, preparing to fellate a prone Jeremy Irons, was this: she's clearly a minor, but she looks healthier and more grown-up than Winona Ryder and Leonardo DiCaprio, or any number of pale little starlets whom Hollywood hypocritically exhorts us to ogle. Lyne's burnished eroticisation of Swain doesn't make easy viewing, but he certainly hasn't cast her for that creepy, bruised, NSPCC-ad anaemia from which Ryder and DiCaprio seem to suffer.
Lyne uses the story to bring home a few uncomfortable truths. Sexuality, he argues, isn't suddenly visited upon you after you've blown out the candles on your 16th birthday cake. And men with Humbert's proclivities aren't terribly uncommon. This isn't nice to hear, but it's a fact, one that Lolita negotiates with remarkable sensitivity. Though Humbert is constantly stressing the uniqueness of his perversion, what you're left with is a sense of the prosaic nature of his criminal desires: it is the cruel selfishness of his submission to them that makes him a blackguard and a ruiner of little lives. That we see the story through Humbert's deluded, lovesick eyes only reinforces that point.
However, this doesn't make Lolita high-gloss kiddie-porn, or an abuser's apologia. At times, Lyne's film is almost becalmed under its weight of queasy sinfulness. After their first proper bout of sexual intercourse, a wave of misery descends upon Lo, Hum and the picture, that stays until the closing credits. "I felt as if I was sitting there with the small ghost of somebody I'd just killed," whispers Irons's voice-over. A short time later, their car pulls up at a motel bearing a sign that reads, "Children under 14 free". It is intensely sad. They are a pair of dead souls, and Humbert dunit.
So will perverts flock to it, as the Daily Mail has suggested? I doubt it. I suspect they will be outnumbered by people who go to the cinema to do something more than reinforce their prejudices.
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