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Affairs of the Tart

Lolita's classy, but where's the comedy and character?

And let's face it, Jeremy Irons has been stricken in far too many movies lately. Waterland, M. Butterfly, Damage, Stealing Beauty, The Chinese Box -- he's becoming a regular Garbo. As beautiful as his line readings often are, Irons isn't terribly interesting when he drizzles himself out in this way; his anguish is too decorous. In Reversal of Fortune, he was able to snap out of his fine-tuned funk because the character he was playing, Claus von BYlow, was a real rotter -- a prize cad. But in Lolita he's much closer to the comatose Sunny von BYlow. This elegant nothingness passing for grand passion saps the material of its power to disturb; Humbert is such a writhing wraith that he never comes close to being a predator. It is Lolita who is shown to be the initiator of their sexual folly. Because the film -- as opposed to the book -- is so intent on turning Humbert into an all-out tragic figure, it never even gives his lechery its due. Lyne is too high-minded for that. Or is it high-low-minded? We first see Lolita stretched out on the lawn as a sprinkler dapples her; we might as well be watching a commercial for a new perfume -- "Nymphet," perhaps?

Dominique Swain at least has the right flip coyness for the role, and the movie's tartest scenes are those in which her Lolita exasperates the humbug Humbert with her lowdown tastes. Lolita is a child of pop culture, and, in the movie's terms, her fetish for pulpy movie magazines and songs with lyrics like "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo" is distinctly all-American. But contrast between Humbert's aggrieved European finesse -- his extraction is primarily Swiss-English -- and Lolita's slangy Americanism should be jauntier than it is. Lyne makes it bear too much metaphorical baggage.

It certainly is possible, though not entirely profitable, to regard Lolita as an allegory about how desiccated old postwar Europe was seduced and overwhelmed by the bright pop crud of the U.S. of A. But there should be more glee in this perception. Perhaps the reason there isn't is because Lyne is still on the side of the musty old Europeans. Nabokov, in his essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita," wrote: "Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity." Lyne wants to expunge any vulgarity from Lolita. He wants to make an art film on the Continental model -- sleek and somnambulistic. That's his idea of art.

It isn't just pop vulgarity that gets short shrift in this Lolita. Missing also is a strong sense of the absurd. Humbert and Lolita, crisscrossing the country by car and stopping at cheesy motels and remote gas stations, are a mock father-daughter duo. On the surface, their spats sound like what any exasperated dad goes through with his kid -- except, of course, the incestuous context is infernal. What the movie mostly misses is the awful comic irony in all this.

What it does capture, in the end, is the irony that Humbert would massacre another man for doing to Lolita what he himself has done. Quilty is the man who hounds Humbert and spirits Lolita away to his own casbah. As played by Frank Langella, he's a voluminously fetid creep whose depravities, in his few scenes, appear bottomless. He is Humbert's walking nightmare, his nemesis, his alter ego -- which, of course, is why he must be destroyed. The final image of the bloodied Humbert -- bereft beyond all care, mourning Lolita's lost innocence -- is eloquent.

What all this means, I fear, is that Lyne's Lolita works best as a classy horror film. This approach is not inappropriate to the material, but it's a vast diminution of what might have been. I realize this movie is not intended as a substitute for the book, and I have attempted to discuss it with that in mind. But the book keeps calling me back. Nabokov's masterpiece touched on so many senses and caught the reader up in such a frightful whirligig of ardor and mischief and woe that it remains one of the most supremely unclassifiable great books. Lyne's version, by contrast, is essentially a long and lugubrious lamentation. It may be his Lolita, but it's not mine.

Lolita.
Rated R.
Directed by Adrian Lyne. With Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith and Frank Langella.

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