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ANDREW L. URBAN talks to director Adrian Lyne and explores why Lolita (the latest) is so darned difficult.

Lolita is coming to Australia: almost three years after Adrian Lyne and his cast and crew schlapped around America for 100 days, shooting in 80 different locations, the adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel is being released in April by Beyond Films (censor permitting), the youngest, least experienced domestic film distributor in the country.

Is it too hot to handle?

Is it too hot to handle? Is it the absolute worst time to be selling tickets to a film about an older man with a 14 year old girl? Is it politically incorrect up to its tragicomic armpits? Is it a bad film?

None of the above.

The real reason – the first one - why Adrian Lyne’s Lolita has acquired a certain notoriety as a ‘difficult’ film to release commercially is hidden inside the belly of the movie beast. We’ll come to the second one later.

Consider this: it cost something like $80 million to make. That’s a good deal more than anyone in Hollywood would spend on an arthouse film, no matter who wrote the damned book and no matter which spiffy English actor you got to play the lead.

The fact is, Lolita was never intended to be an arthouse film. Not if Mario Kassar had anything to do with it, which he did. He is the producer.

His track record is not noted for arthouse projects: the Rambo films, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Basic Instinct, Total Recall and Cliffhanger, among others, with combined global takings in excess of $3 billion.

"God! I mean it was nightmarish, a lot of it."

Kassar co-founded Carolco (a Hollywood mini major, as they called it) in 1976 and became its chairman in 1989; Lyne came to him with Lolita in 1990 - and Kassar set about obtaining the rights from the Nabokov estate – via the legendary agent, Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. We can imagine that what was conceived then, by two men who had pounded the mainstream box office. If Kassar had blockbusters under his belt, Lyne had just made the psycho-thriller, Jacob’s Ladder, and already had under his belt three Oscar nominations for Flashdance, seven for Fatal Attraction, plus a reputation for sexually obsessive stories with 9 ½ Weeks.

This was a rich mix of elements; Kassar, Lyne plus Lolita was Hollywood heaven. Lolita was going to be a big girl in the movies.

But by 1975, when the project was about to roll, Carolco had become a financial black hole, and subsequently it imploded. The project had to be re-housed, and the French company, Pathé, obliged, but as Lyne well remembers, it was never an easy film to make: "God! I mean it was nightmarish, a lot of it."

But as one door closed, another was about to slam in his face: as he was in the middle of shooting (and at 100 shooting days that was a long enough time), a new US federal law came into effect (1996) that prohibits showing sexually suggestive acts with children.

"The climate in America was horrendous at the time," he recalls.

"I sat in a cutting room with a lawyer for six weeks."

"I sat in a cutting room with a lawyer for six weeks. The law that came out said that essentially I couldn't use any of the shots that I had shot with the body double; that I couldn't have an adult imitating a juvenile. This law was aimed at the internet and it was aimed at people putting children's heads on mature bodies, if you see what I'm saying, and it carried over into films. So it was traumatic for me because, obviously, this lawyer was saying I had to take this out, I had to take that out . . . and I was hooting and hollowing and yelling and disagreeing with the guy but in the end, happily, I didn't have to do much, actually. He was a fairly understanding man; but I did have to take out a few shots that I'd done with the body double, you know, her breasts or whatever. But I don't think it affected the movie. It was a very unnerving period because we didn't know, for example, where we stood in terms of legality with the film and at times we were worried about literally moving the film from California to New York. There was a lot of paranoia."

Perhaps influenced by the trauma of Carolco’s collapse and the new legislation that intruded on his film, or perhaps simply responding to the novel, which Lyne has devoured and knows more intimately than arguably anyone else alive, he has made a film no-one expected of him. As Richard Schikel in Time magazine observed, "he didn’t deliver an Adrian Lyne movie, something with the mildly transgressive, slightly trashy, hugely promotable edge of his Fatal Attraction or Indecent Proposal."

In Salon magazine, Charles Taylor wrote: "When I first heard that Adrian Lyne was filming Lolita I swore I wouldn’t cross the street to see it…I had no desire to see what the director of 9 ½ Weeks and Indecent Proposal would do when he got his sleazy mitts on it."

Faithful to Nabokov in its tone, in its oblique humour and in its gut-wrenching pathos, Lyne has turned out a sophisticated and mature film, complex, riveting and entirely satisfying, if tragic and thought provoking to boot. This was a big surprise to Hollywood.

"the people who want it banned haven’t seen it." Gary Hamilton

In fact it was still in jaw-locked shock when cable operator Showtime forked out the biggest cheque in its history for a single movie, and put it to air before someone (Samuel Goldwyn) had the gumption to buy theatrical rights and release it across America. By then, most of (traditionally square and conservative) Moscow had seen it, an irony missed by most on the West coast.

Is it ever going to make a profit, though? Lyne replies without hesitation; "Oh, I think so, in the end. Nothing like 9 ½ Weeks … when that came out it did very little business in theatres in America. It was only over the years that it caught people’s imagination."

The mistake many observers have made, and Schikel also points this out, was to assume that the reason for the film’s lack of a distributor in the US was a result of the new law and its possible impact on a film that relies on a 14 year old girl in a liaison with a 50 year old man. Wrong. The film has no relevance to pedophilia at all, and only the ignorant who have not seen the film would agitate to have it banned on those grounds. (Or any grounds, for that matter.)

Australia’s Beyond Films – with only three titles released in Australia so far, starting with In the Company of Men – came up with a deal that gives Pathé a bigger than normal slice of the action if the film is successful. Gary Hamilton of Beyond says he doesn’t know why other distributors weren’t pursuing the film. The subject matter certainly doesn’t phase Beyond; "There is nothing offensive about it," he says. "the people who want it banned haven’t seen it."

"How better to have power than through an adult who is infatuated with you"

This is how Jeremy Irons, who plays Humbert Humbert, describes the film: "Lolita deals with a relationship between a man and his 14 year old step daughter. Nabokov writes that she seduces him, for her own reasons. [Ed: Nabokov began writing what was to become Lolita in 1939, as a novella in Russian, titled Volshebnik - The Enchanter.] She is at an age when she wants her freedom and power. How better to have power than through an adult who is infatuated with you. And you have to make love to him, it doesn’t give you much pleasure but it’s quite fun. But then you get the freedom and you’re an adult. You travel with him and so on.

"The man, who has frozen his sexuality because of an emotional loss at the age of 14, is sensually under developed and feels like a 14 year old emotionally and is uncomfortable with the bodies of mature women.

"And we, the audience, find that he is not a monster, but quite funny and sweet sometimes. We follow their story - the boredom of it, the sadness of it, the exhilaration of it at times…and then you see what happens. She leaves him for someone even more undesirable than Humbert, and then she has a child by someone else again… and when finally Humbert finds her and wants her, still, for ever, she looks at him as he were nuts. She never really felt anything for him in her heart. And that’s the tragedy…"

Hardly pedophilia.

"It would be much more convenient, much easier ... if he was just a monster"

No, but there is another issue, the second real reason for the film being contentious and it’s one that Lyne recognises. "I think one of the reasons that people have found the movie troubling is that their feelings about how to respond to Humbert is ambivalent. They want to hate him but they can't really. It's awful what he does to this kid, obviously, but then they find themselves laughing with him and sometimes sympathising with him because she's so awful to him and, ultimately, they understand that he really did love her. This is a tough thing sometimes for people to buy into. It would be much more convenient, much easier, if they just loathed him, if he was just a monster."

Like that mistress woman who wouldn’t die in the bath, perhaps.

Note: this interview appeared first in The Bulletin, on sale Wednesday February 25, 1999.

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