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LOLITA – CONCEIVED 1939, MISREPRESENTED 1999

What a lot of (well intentioned but ill-considered) baloney surrounds this film and this story, which Vladimir Nabokov began writing 60 years ago in Russia. ANDREW L. URBAN responds to calls for the banning of the film and does a reality check on some of the charges against the film.

When near the end of the film the pathetic, distraught Humbert finally tracks down his once-irascible Lolita – two years after she disappears from his side – and she is no longer the pert and mischievous flirt, but a subdued and pregnant wife, in a crumbling shack, married to a young labourer, the full force of the tragedy is unveiled. Undaunted by the outward and perhaps inward changes in her, he begs her to come away with him, to marry him, "to everything" with him, in a pathetic cry of hopeless love. Despite everything (and there is much of everything that goes before) Humbert wants this young woman to be with him forever. You may doubt his emotional maturity, but you cannot doubt his passion, his love, his devotion – obsession, if you like. But then she makes it clear that she never really felt anything for Humbert. She had used him. Just take a look at the scene where she wants more pocket money, stroking Humbert’s leg sensually, blatantly exercising her newfound power.

These aspects of the story don’t sit well with charges that the film is just child pornography or that it glorifies paedophilia.

The charge - child pornography: Susan Edwards (writing in The Age ) says "in this film we find the very stuff, the very script of child pornography and not just for paedophiles like Philip Bell…"

The reality: Edwards is stretching the idea of child pornography to include Lolita. There is nothing that resembles pornography in the film. There is one scene in which Humbert and Lolita partake in casual intercourse while Humbert is seated in a rocking chair and she is seated with her back to him on his lap. Both are fully clothed. Lolita is reading. Lawyers in the US made director Adrian Lyne cut out one scene where Lolita’s breasts were bared in another scene.

The charge – paedophilia:

The reality: Paedophiles discard their victims after a certain (young) age. Paedophiles do not wish to marry their victims. Humbert is not a paedophile, and Dolores (Lolita) is not a victim. (As we know, in some cultures a 14 year old girl is already married and perhaps pregnant. This is not comparable to 11 - 14 year old boys, say, the typical victims of same-sex paedophilia, speaking of Bell.)

Secondly, Humbert is never a gloating predator, as is a typical paedophile. It is a crucial issue that we are aware of Humbert’s moral insight – and his perpetual remorse, even though he can’t help himslef to do anything about it. He is anguished from the moment he recognises that he is irrevocably drawn to the teenager, knowing he is too old for her – at least physically; his emotional history, already laid out for us, is some sort of explanation for his feelings (even if not an excuse for his actions) - his teenage love for a glorious 14 year old girl who dies at the peak of their infatuation leaves him emotionally crippled, his ability to love in a kind of limbo.

The young girl, at first innocent of the effect she has on Humbert, soon senses her power and manipulates Humbert’s emotions in pursuit of her own ambitions. It is this factor that perhaps enrages some people (especially women) because it openly accepts that women’s sexually-sourced power (even at 14) is greater than men’s.

The right of children to protection and freedom of exploitation: Edwards never explains how banning Lolita will help protect children from exploitation. One view, shared by the film’s male star, Jeremy Irons, is that the film has some educational and preventative value for children at risk. Whether one agrees with this view or not, it is an absurd suggestion that showing the film to audiences over 18 will put children in danger. Implicit in this charge is the notion that Humbert seduces Lolita: the facts are that a) the seduction is mutual and b) Lolita has already lost her virginity to someone else (much to Humbert’s amazement).

The charge – Edwards says "the problem with Lolita is that it glamorises and normalises sex with children by calling it ‘art’ and ‘erotica’:

The reality: Three issues here: 1) glamorises and normalises sex with children; this phrase is emotive but misleading and a tad dishonest. It is not a film about people having sex with children. Humbert does not pursue Lolita to have sex with her. He falls in love with her. 2) Glamorising and normalising is not found: we are left in no doubt that Humbert is aware that his relationship is not ‘normal’ or socially common, average, acceptable, etc. Glamour is a strange word to use in this context: Lolita continually behaves as a mischievous teenager and breaks down any aura of glamour we may entertain. Is it glamorous to chew gum, to stick chewing gum on Humbert’s notepaper, to remove your braces before kissing? 3) the labels of art or erotica are applied by Edwards.

The charge: Edwards says "sexual intercourse with children under 16 is an offence . . . so too is persistent abuse or maintaining a sexual relationship with a child. Humbert would be indicted on multiple charges! So where does a film like Lolita fit into this global protective psyche? Or is the point that where the child is considered provocative – Lolita is portrayed as a seductress – she automatically forfeits the right to protection?"

The reality: At the end of the film, Humbert kills the man who ‘stole’ Lolita from him, thereby denying Humbert his "redemption" as he puts it himself, and then allows himself to be captured by police. Humbert doesn’t ‘get away with it’ as Edwards seems to imply. Secondly, the fact that Humbert’s actions are illegal hardly justifies banning the film. Good grief, if it did, we wouldn’t have any films to argue about because just about every film would be banned on the grounds it contains illegal human activity. Let’s not confuse ‘contain’ with ‘condone’, either.

NOTE: Todd Solondz’s new film, Happiness ( R ), which opens March 25, 1999, actually does depict a paedophile, a psychiatrist and family man who can’t control his secret, taboo urges for young boys. Should that film be even more banned?

And on that subtle attempt at slanting the reader, Edwards says Lolita is "portrayed" as a seductress, suggesting that Edwards doesn’t believe she really is, it’s just how the film portrays her. Really?

SEEING IS NOT BELIEVING – NOR BLESSING
But perhaps the most astonishing remark from Edwards (a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Law Faculty), is this: "If we accept Lolita we are giving our blessing to sex with children." Consider the meaning and ramifications of this remark carefully: it is a blatant attempt at emotional blackmail. While I have no doubt that Edwards’ motives are entirely credible and genuine and fundamentally in agreement with mine and others’ - who believe children should be protected from ‘predatorial’ sex (so should adults) – the proposition is profoundly flawed. It is also evident that Edwards has devoted herself to the causes of feminism and child pornography, both professionally and personally.

So it is surprising that she has stumbled into the trap of such an imprecise but explosive remark. What does "if we accept" mean? As she is arguing in favour of the film being banned, it can only mean "allow to be released." And in that case, she is on very silly ground; we "accept" many films that portray the worst of human nature, from drug abuse to sexual abuse, from sanctioned killing in war to back lane murder. We "accept" films that are plain boring or unbelievable, too, but that doesn’t mean we give any of the actions or even the films, our blessing!

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