So how is it? A first look at the controversial film.
October 6, 1997

Flowering on the lawn: Newcomer Swain is the archetypal nymphet

At last, Lolita is here. Well, not exactly. Italy, to be precise, then Spain, Germany, France, Britain. And a screening room in New York, where I was the first critic in the United States to see Adrian Lyne's $60 million movie‑which still hasn't found an American distributor. Thirty‑five years after Stanley Kubrick's original film version of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial masterpiece about a middle‑aged man's sexual relationship with his 12‑year‑old stepdaughter, "Lolita" is more controversial than ever. One studio executive told Variety, "Pedophilia's a hard sell." Even for Lyne, who's had big box‑office success with movies like "Flashdance" and "Fatal Attraction." Lyne's most fatal attraction may have been to the Nabokov book, originally banned in France and avoided by U.S. publishers until Putnam took it in 1958. Since then it's sold 14 million copies. But the current cultural climate, symbolized by the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, has the studios running scared.

Seeing "Lolita" at last reveals that Lyne has translated Nabokov's classic with sensitivity, intelligence and style. Stephen Schiff’s screenplay (after earlier attempts by Basil Dearden, Harold Pinter and David Mamet) is closer to the book than Nabokov's own script for Kubrick. As Humbert Humbert, the world's most famous pedophile, Jeremy Irons is more morally conflicted by his desire for girl‑children than James Mason, who played Humbert as a suave hedonist. As Clare Quilty, Humbert's nemesis who takes Lolita away from him, Frank Langella is a shadowy, satanic figure, where Peter Sellers was a surreal, crazily comic Quilty. Lyne's Lolita is newcomer Dominique Swain, much closer to Nabokov's archetypal idea of the "nymphet" than Sue Lyon, who projected an older, more slutty seductiveness.

If "Lolita" doesn't shock, it's pointless. The young actress who dares to play the role must unnerve and disturb the viewer just as she disturbs Humbert. How can an actress (herself a 14‑year‑old child during filming) and a director do this without calling out the constabulary? Carefully, but also daringly. Swain's Lolita learns about her sexual power from Humbert's reaction to her. This process must be both charming and ultimately tragic, and in this movie it is.

The camera becomes Humbert's eyes, surveying Lolita, the landscape of his desire. He watches Lolita lying on the lawn, as a sprinkler bedews her as if she were a giant flower. He hears her brushing her teeth, spitting juicily into the sink. He glimpses her arm reaching languidly for the toilet paper. Everything she does drives the poor guy nuts.

Lyne makes you feel both the depravity and the humanity of Humbert's obsession. The power of Irons's performance is in this complexity. As he watches Lolita under the unaware eyes of his wife, Charlotte (Melanie Griffith), his face is a visual sonata of emotions: hapless lust, paternal pride, esthetic appreciation. He becomes the captive audience for her one‑girl show of accelerated sexual awareness. She snaps her bubble gum at him, sprawls, scratches, sashays. She's always hopping on his lap; his lap becomes the throne of her pubescent queenship.

Nabokov, a verbal magician surpassed only by James Joyce, did all this with his kaleidoscopic words, not one of them dirty. Lyne's images (shot by Howard Atherton) are beautiful, but for some, they will be translated into "dirt" by cultural processing. (There's just one flash‑by nude scene, shot with a body double.) Avoiding sexual explicitness, Lyne does lay on the symbolism too heavily‑Lolita munching a banana, a car's stick shift. But "Lolita" is not a dirty story; it's a tragedy, as Nabokov himself said, and the film reflects that. Humbert's obsession results in the death of Lolita's mother, his own unraveling sanity and the blighting of a young woman's growth. At the end everybody dies. What more could the moral constabulary ask for?

That's what Adrian Lyne wants to know. "I'm very proud of this movie," he says, speaking from Rome. "And I think it's important that it be seen, so that people can argue." Lyne is "stunned" at what he sees as the atmosphere of cultural constriction in America: "Six year‑olds who kiss each other in school are charged with sexual harassment. Things are nuts right now." For Lyne, it's nuts that there's no U.S. distributor for "Lolita." "I've had so many letters from top people at studios who want the film. But the corporate decisions are made from above." Hollywood's biggest fear may be the bottom line‑ the risk of releasing a $60 million film with no superstars. In the end, says Lyne, "it just takes some courage to make the decision." He cites a studio person who worriedly asked him, "Are you going to make the sex erotic?" Lyne laughs in disbelief. Nonerotic sex is one of those ideals America has yet to achieve. "Lolita" certainly won't help in that respect.