Two and a half hours of a grown man (James Mason) grooming a young girl (Sue Lyon), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita belongs in the category of “films you couldn’t make now (thank god)” alongside Mannequin and Trapped in the Closet. Usually so tonally assured, here Kubrick lurches uncomfortably between hysterical melodrama and what can only be described as paedo-farce.
Ironically it’s probably a fairly accurate depiction of an abusive relationship between child and guardian, insofar as the young Lolita doesn’t understand that what’s happening to her is wrong, but apparently neither do Kubrick and Nabokov. Bizarrely the film sympathises with the older Humbert, who is presented as a hopeless romantic and tragic hero, spurned by the overly flirtatious child.
The treatment of Lolita’s mother (Shelley Winters) also smacks of sexism, making glib jokes out of her suffering at the hands of intellectual men using her to get to her underage daughter. There are some funny moments but this sense of humour is missplaced, misjudged and misogynistic.
The farcical plot features Peter Sellers in various disguises, a device that made perfect sense in the tightly written, pointed satire of Dr. Strangelove, but feels wildly out of place in this, Kubrick’s idea of a love story.
Unfocused, uncomfortable and unkind, Lolita laughs at the abused and reserves respect for the abusers. It’s a troubling, creepy film that thinks it’s LOLita when really it’s a nonce-sense.