Laying It on the Lyne

Lolita
Showtime, Sunday at 8 p.m. and Tuesday, August 11, at 9 p.m.

While courting cold-footed distributors for the past two years, director Adrian Lyne mentioned to anyone who'd listen that his Lolita more truly adapts Vladimir Nabokov's novel than Stanley Kubrick's wonderful but less explicit movie from 1962. In a sense, he's right, but that has less to do with Lyne's courage than with the changing mores of the culture. Sex in general is no longer taboo in film, and Lyne didn't think he needed to cloak his message in cheeky symbolism as Kubrick did.

How did they ever make a movie of that?: Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain in Adrian Lyne's Lolita
How did they ever make a movie of that?: Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain in Adrian Lyne's Lolita

So, where Nabokov tells his story in the voice of his antihero, the pedophiliac Humbert Humbert, Kubrick's rather circumspect adaptation pretends at objectivity, eroticizing Lolita only enough to provide the general shape of Humbert's distorted vision. And Lyne, the director of 9-1/2 Weeks, goes balls-out to plunge us into the eye of the debaucher. In a recent interview, Jeremy Irons (who plays Humbert in Lyne's film) said, "Whether Adrian knew it or not, I think he was Humbert. We were very close because of that. We asked each other: Is that sexy, is that attractive, is that a good image? We were like a couple of kids, a couple of brothers."

You probably have to see the movie to understand why that quote is so creepy; for now, let's just say it suggests two grown men at the height of their powers conspiring to display the body of an unknown 15-year-old (Dominique Swain) for maximum male pleasure. But if you've ever been a child confronted even in passing with the ancient-secret hankerings of an older man (or woman, for that matter), then you know how it feels to be that obscure object of desire. You know what it is to have the outer facts of your being seized upon in another's imagination, particularized according to that person's sad history, claimed for their own without regard to your core, your intelligence, your expectations for your life.

Nabokov fully understands this violation for what it is, giving the first-person account of a pedophile while also making clear the man's cataclysmic effect on others. There is no absolution for Humbert--though the reader is gradually let off the hook as the novel becomes more a portrait of madness than an erotic page-wetter. In a sense, Lyne tries to go the opposite route, creating a pretty, easy-to-swallow brand of pedophilia in which we're all implicated and Humbert, at worst, is just a softhearted sap who fell for the wrong 12-year-old.

In hard-selling us on our own Nabokovian "nympholeptic" tendencies, Lyne draws heavily on his training as a director of TV commercials--the sentimental lighting, bogus poses, and cheap visual symbolism coding Swain's Lolita as a "nymphet" for the plucking. The lecherous eye of the camera sexualizes her every movement; neither she nor we can escape its version of her. For example, we spy on Lolita as she sits on the floor in front of an open refrigerator, her body turned awkwardly to face the camera, her tanned legs spread, her mouth gulping an oozy white substance straight out of the carton. (This is only the first of several laughably obvious cum shots.)

The irony is that, for all the controversy over this film, its depiction of girlish sexuality is nothing new; if anything, it's airbrushed to resemble an age-old Playboy layout. "There's nothing salacious in it," Lyne has said--and, according to his definition of the word, he's right. In trying to seduce us into complicity with Humbert, Irons and Lyne defy the novel as much as Kubrick did, but differently. Rather than depict the offending acts or their gruesome effects (as in Anjelica Huston's film of Bastard Out of Carolina, for instance), the new Lolita delicately veils them, along with the less attractive details of Humbert's illness. The effect is merely a subtler and more insidious brand of salaciousness. (As Nabokov's Humbert admits, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.)

Interestingly, the artificiality of screen romance forms a constant refrain in the novel, with Humbert comparing several dramatic interludes to movie scenes, and Lolita, a matinee fiend, aping screen kisses and movie-star mannerisms until, realizing their implications, she promptly shuts down. In one of the novel's sex scenes, she sits in Humbert's lap, reading the funnies and doing her best to ignore the fact that he's moving inside her. But in Lyne's rendition, Swain is directed to put down the paper and arch her back in movie-star pleasure--unnngh--mimicking an act she's no doubt seen a million times before in everything from Risky Business to Basic Instinct.

Lolita is probably the pinnacle of Lyne's oeuvre and, as such, it has a distinctly '80s feel. Like so many pop artifacts from that decade, Lyne's work is merely an update of the Victorian tradition: His men are socially powerful but emotionally crippled slaves to their penises, and his women are creatures who wield their only tool--you know what--for self-promotion and/or mass destruction. (In addition to 9-1/2 Weeks, Lyne directed Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal.) In Lyne's world, the men may penetrate the women, but it's the women whose sexuality functions as a phallus, unlocking the dark Pandora's box at the heart of every man. (If this sounds painfully clichéd, please, blame Lyne and not me.)

Today, in light of "Girl Power" and the many Lolita-get-your-gun movies of the '90s, this sordid little trap looks nearly quaint from the beginning, not to mention tediously predictable. But Lolita goes on to reach the apex of absurdity with its ending. After spending the entire film masterfully eroticizing Swain and delicately spanking us for being such naughty voyeurs, the director suddenly produces the deus ex machina of Humbert's belated remorse. Lyne doesn't dwell on it, mind you--he wouldn't want us to feel too bad about having had boners for two full hours. This is entertainment, after all, so the conclusion simply allows us to feel cozy while we wipe up.

Rather like the urban night of the Beats, Lyne's sexworld is a fantasy in which the female (like Jack Kerouac's Negro) possesses the secret of ecstasy. Thus the hero's guilt is alleviated by the knowledge that powerlessness has in fact been good for these heavenly creatures--just look at how magical they are. (A Humbertian philosophy if there ever was one.) The horror is how fully they might destroy us if given a longer leash. But we don't have to worry about that. And more than anything, it's this reassurance that lies at the heart of Lyne's vision: Females can do all sorts of crazy shit to rip up your world, but you still have the gun (e.g., Fatal Attraction), the money (Indecent Proposal), and, most importantly, the camera.

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