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Criminally Underrated: Lolita

Criminally Underrated: Lolita

The 1997 take on Lolita is well-worth a watch for its take on an uncomfortable subject.

Some movies are formative in a way you’d never expect. I didn’t read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel until I was in college, but I can definitely remember being a teenager and watching this 1997 adaptation of Lolita. Director Adrian Lyne’s interpretation of Nabokov’s novel was the second version. People tend to remember Stanley Kubrick’s intense and satirical take on the material from 1961. Where that film is oft-considered one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, Lyne’s take is not. Maybe that’s because of the ‘90s release, a landscape where there was little funny in a story of child molestation, or maybe it was the stigma associated with Lyne’s erotic dramas. Regardless, the 1997 take on Lolita is well-worth a watch for its take on an uncomfortable subject.

Set in the 1950s, the film follows Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) and his interactions with the young “nymphette” Dolores Haze (Dominique Swain). Once Dolores’ mother dies, Humbert, now her stepfather, is left to care for the child, driving their relationship down a dark path.

I have a very complicated relationship with this movie. I saw it as a teenager and was enamored with Jeremy Irons to begin with. As I’ve gotten older the film has taken on a more nuanced look that requires active viewership. Director Lyne, best known for erotic features like 9 ½ Weeks and Unfaithful, attempts to hearken back to the classic film era with his take. The entire color palette is infused with pastels, casting a gauzy sheen over everything. Dolores, referred to as Lolita by Humbert, is beautifully framed by water droplets or nature, acting as a reminder of all that’s innocent and pure in the world.

And yet this purity and beauty acts as a facade for the darkness inherent in the story itself. Dominique Swain, with her red hair in pigtails and her bright red lipstick, is beautiful yet sexual. The locations they travel to are “swank,” but act as dens of iniquity. Lyne eschews the typical erotic exploitation he’s known for, for obvious reasons. But while there’s no overt sex shown – and the few scenes included are hidden in darkness or off-camera – the entire tone of the film is meant to induce uncomfortability, rightfully so.

It’s this tonal paradigm that makes Lolita an underrated feature. There’s a wealth of young women, myself included, who see this as a coming-of-age film for reasons unexplained. And part of growing up and watching this movie comes from seeing how Lyne frames fantasy versus reality. Dolores herself may actively interest Humbert, initiating a kiss or manipulating him for her own ends, but there’s always a double meaning that the audience has to notice. The scene with the kiss shows a young woman who believes she’s engaging in movie-star theatrics; Humbert perceives their vacation as the journey of two outlaws on the run as Dolores finds herself sobbing in one of their hotel rooms. Later, as Dolores strikes up an illicit friendship with playwright Claire Quilty (Frank Langella), her attempts to escape aren’t just to be with him but to escape to a man she hopes will treat her better.

The main criticism against the film, short of the subject matter, is then-14-year-old Dominique Swain’s acting. People used to the slinky, older portrayal of the character by Sue Lyon in the ‘60s might be displeased, but this iteration of the character is more in line with Nabokov’s character – though still a far cry from the Lolita on the page. Where Lolita in Nabokov’s novel is described as unattractive, Swain embodies beauty and irritation. She looks darling in her sailor outfits, but she’s also incredibly immature and, yes, a child. This is all necessary for the audience, even if it might be harsh on the ears. She’s complemented by Jeremy Irons’ performance which is on par with the solid work he crafted throughout the decade. He’s cringey without being too lecherous, though his actions undermine that.

Lolita is a film that one doesn’t necessarily enjoy, but can appreciate it. In the 20 years since release it’s gained an underground following and has been presented in art-house settings; a far cry from the Showtime-only premiere it received in the States back in 1997.

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