New Lolita Better Than Kubrick’s But Nabokov Just Gets Nastier

Adrian Lyne’s Lolita , from a screenplay by Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, received its New York premiere at a benefit for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, hosted by Showtime Networks Inc. at Alice Tully Hall on July 28 at 7:30 P.M. This comparatively low-key klieg light and paparazzi event was preceded by a cocktail reception in the theater lobby at which I sipped my free vodka and tonic, and casually worked the room. Half the people I encountered had already seen the movie, and were not about to see it again. Their reactions were vaguely mixed. Most people were more curious about what I really thought about Saving Private Ryan . By the time you read this column, Lolita will have been shown on Showtime, and I trust that the Republic will have survived, though I am less sure that it can survive the rumored reappearance of Monica Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress.

On the whole, I preferred the new Lolita to Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version, about which I wrote at the time: “The director’s heart is apparently elsewhere. Consequently, we face the problem without the passion, the badness without the beauty, the agony without the ecstasy.” I happened to run into the foregoing quote of mine when I looked up Lolita in Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide . It seems strange to me today that I ever thought Mr. Kubrick had a heart, stylistically speaking, or that the Nabokov novel was passionate, beautiful and ecstatic. Upon rereading it recently after almost 40 years, I found it cold, self-adoring and mean-spiritedly misogynistic.

I can already hear the Nabokovians roaring. Who am I to argue with Lionel Trilling and John Updike about Lolita being one of the great love stories of the century? As Steve Martin would respond, “Excu-u-u-u-se me !” First of all, what kind of love is it that is focused on a type of female rather than on a unique being? Any nymphet at hand would do for Humbert Humbert. Dolores Haze just happens to be under the same roof. Also, Humbert is too lucid about his alleged beloved, too aware of her innate vulgarity and mediocrity. A recent moral critique of the movie condemned Humbert for depriving a 14-year-old girl of the freedom to choose her own path through life without adult manipulation. As it happens, however, in the book, Humbert gets off the hook somewhat by having the already corrupted Dolores make the first sluttishly aggressive move. Of course, we all know that Humbert’s Lolita is actually philistinish America and its endlessly and sometimes tediously parodied language interacting with Nabokov’s Russian-European sensibility. Yeah.

There is one interesting plot element in the book that does not appear in either movie and that is Humbert’s doping Lolita’s drink so as to enjoy her favors while she is completely unconscious. In the Lyne-Schiff version, Jeremy Irons’ Humbert Humbert pretends to be seeking relief from his own insomnia from a doctor who gets a laugh from the audience by prescribing a pill that makes his own wife sleep all night without making a peep. This is Humbert’s partial objective as well, since he wants Lolita’s mother, Melanie Griffith’s Charlotte Haze, to be so knocked out all the time that she cannot demand Humbert’s husbandly services in the sack.

This takes us to what I find most objectionable in Nabokov’s nasty novel: his diatribes against older women. Indeed, some people who have seen both movies have complained that Melanie Griffith is not as comically grotesque in the role of Lolita’s mother as Shelley Winters was in the first version. If I prefer Ms. Griffith to Ms. Winters, it is because I find it easier to believe that Dominique Swain’s Lolita is the daughter of Ms. Griffith’s Charlotte Haze than Sue Lyon’s Lolita was the daughter of Ms. Winters’ Charlotte.

Perhaps Nabokov has been shielded from this kind of crude character analysis by his layers and layers of irony. What his prose lacks in charm it more than makes up in the cultural intimidation of a polymath. What he knows about the inside gossip of tennis enables him to make a disguised reference to Bill Tilden in his twilight years with his “harem” of bellboys. If he were alive, he would disdain my taking up the cudgels for the gorgons and gargoyles he presents as representatives of post-nymphet womanhood. He asks us to congratulate him for not following the conventional procedures of the professional pornographer.

I have read somewhere that his father, a prominent Russian exile, was assassinated by mistake, as it were, by a terrorist with another victim in mind. I can imagine the traumatic absurdism this would induce in a sensitive artist. The pieces of his life have been shattered to smithereens, and he patiently puts them together in a series of ill-matched puzzles that constitute his psychologically deformed narratives. Humbert Humbert is sick, sick, sick, and Nabokov has too much contempt for Freud to allow any subtextual intrusions into the author’s stylistically sealed cosmos. That is why Humbert’s last-minute repentance rings false.

Feeling as I now do about a work that has been designated as one of the great books of the century, I can hardly complain that Mr. Lyne and Mr. Schiff have not been “faithful” to this copious novel. Mr. Schiff’s screenplay, which I have read in its published form, is considerably closer to its literary source than the screenplay for the Kubrick version, officially credited to Nabokov, but disowned by him. Mr. Schiff has actually incorporated several consciously “cinematic” devices to be found in the film-wise Nabokov’s novel. More important, the new Lolita generates more emotion than was ever contemplated in the predominantly comic conception of the Kubrick version, with its free rein on the virtuoso talents of Peter Sellers in the mischievous role of Clare Quilty, played in the new version by Frank Langella with a moodier and more mysterious malignancy.

James Mason’s Humbert Humbert was more painfully masochistic and less erotically charged than the Humbert of Mr. Irons. Ms. Lyon’s Lolita has been somewhat underrated in retrospect, but she never had the opportunity to display the behavioral range allowed to Dominique Swain with her many more close-ups and reaction shots. The biggest edge for the new Lolita over the old is in Ennio Morricone’s warmer and more poignant score over Nelson Riddle’s cooler and more sardonic accompaniment. In his candid introduction to his screenplay, Mr. Schiff explains why the movie ended up costing $58 million, a fatal commercial miscalculation for a property more notorious than popular in any of its manifestations, particularly in America, where l’amour fou has never found a large audience. And what could be more fou than an infatuation with a nymphet as short-lived as a butterfly, and doomed to degenerate into that most disgusting of all Nabokov’s species, a grown woman.

Smile, You’re in Seventh Heaven

Speaking of grown women, Sandrine Kiberlain’s Mathilde is a delectably disturbed married female in Benoît Jacquot’s wickedly amusing Seventh Heaven . Mathilde seems comfortably married to Nico (Vincent Lindon), a prominent surgeon and all-around good provider. But of late, she has been shoplifting in department stores, fainting for no apparent reason, calling in sick to her job and refraining from sex with her husband. One day after a particularly harrowing episode of being caught stealing and then fainting, she is confronted by a mysterious Doctor (François Berléand) who offers her a treatment combining hypnosis and the ancient Chinese folk science feng shui. If you didn’t happen to read William Berlind’s fascinating account in last week’s Observer of feng shui experts analyzing the mystical causes of the Condé Nast building disaster on Times Square, suffice it to say that feng shui has been defined as the practice of living harmoniously with the energy of the environment, which naturally leads to the art of placement, not only of buildings, but of everything within them. For Mathilde and her newfound guru, this involves shifting the furniture in her apartment so that nocturnal visits to the bathroom become more obtrusive occasions.

Mathilde’s husband is initially befuddled by her sudden burst of energy and change, seemingly for change’s sake. As he becomes increasingly resentful of something dynamic happening outside the marriage, he begins stalking his wife, and discovers her “secret.” The resulting tensions between husband and wife escalate into a fierce conflict between the intuitive forces governing Mathilde’s behavior, and the rational and logical disciplines of Nico as a man of science. Mr. Jacquot is clearly on Mathilde’s side in this marital tug-of-war, but he never lets the rancorous discord escalate into irreparable separation. The daily routine of feeding a child is transfigured into the sacramental salvation of a marriage. Ms. Kiberlain says it all at the end with a sublimely compassionate smile. She is one of the glories of the contemporary French cinema, little of which reaches our increasingly xenophobic shores as far as film distribution and exhibition is concerned.

New Lolita Better Than Kubrick’s But Nabokov Just Gets Nastier