Tuesday, 6 October 2009

'Lolita' par Adrian Lyne: Not at all bad...

Ever since the Adrian Lyne filming of Lolita struggled to reach screens back in 1997 a critical consensus seems to have developed that Lyne's version was not at all a bad effort: perhaps doomed to a small audience, given its unhappy subject (so missing the mainstream) and its director's dodgy track record (so losing the arthouse crowd, who were never going to pause to re-evaluate Flashdance.) My fellow Faber and Faber scribe Gilbert Adair put the Case For pretty well unimprovably in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro: "[Lyne's] Lolita is rather more faithful to the spirit of the novel than Kubrick’s, more lusciously erotic, also more tender and poignant. As for Dominique Swain in the title-role, she gives (I weigh my words) an extraordinary performance, and the wreck of her career by the near-universal contempt with which the film was greeted is something of a tragedy." Having finally caught up with Lyne's movie on Film Four last week, I too find myself among those who can give their (measured) approval of the venture.
Kubrick's film was a comedy of manners, such as 1962 permitted; I'm sure Stanley would have made it racier had the censor allowed, but instead (helped by Peter Sellers, James Mason and Sue Lyon) he made it very, very blackly funny, and his screenplay, which made Nabokov rather wince, is a serious achievement. (You can read Nabokov's own effort at adapting Lolita if you wish, because he published the thing separately as a matter of pride. But you wouldn't ever want to watch it...)
Some smart fellow once said that it's pointless to pretend you can 'film a book'; the best a filmmaker can do is come up with something that reminds one fondly of the source. Lyne's Lolita certainly accomplishes that. Watching it, I was frequently and happily put in mind of my first meeting with Nabokov's novel. When Lyne was doing junkets for his movie's release he was quick to confess that originally he had "read Lolita for all of the wrong reasons." Yeah yeah, you and everyone else, pal. Certainly as an adolescent I sought it out for its notoriety as a 'hot book' and instead, like a million others, was quietly stunned by one's first encounter with the high style of twentieth century English literature.
Of course, the book still describes sexual heat, and Lyne obviously couldn't resist visualising some of that, in his very own breathless fashion. But where his film most memorably refracts the novel is in its poignancy, its villain's creeping awareness of his terrible, unretractable sin. How bold and honourable was this Lolita to end on the note of Humbert Humbert's self-realising moment as the police cordon closes in on him while he stands on a hilltop, hearing the far-off sounds of children at play in a little hamlet snuggled in the valley below - knowing that, whatever feelings of 'love' he has professed for his stepdaughter, the truth is that he robbed her of her childhood, and her every chance of happiness in the bargain. Thus: "The hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord..."

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