Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and the collapse of Western Culture

The legendary director’s first great film is a dizzying blend of genres driven by a middle-aged man’s sexual fascination with a teenager.  Told in a more straightforward style than much of his later work, the story beneath the surface is one of cultural decline, where villain and victim become increasingly hard to define in an overwhelmingly amoral universe.

Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita is not an easy film to classify.  The first of the legendary director’s truly great works, the film combines elements of disparate genres into an uncomfortable whole driven by an older man’s obsession and eventual sexual relationship with a beautiful teenager.   There are elements of comedy and satire including outright slapstick, raw drama if not actual melodrama, a bit of mystery compounded by an extremely slow car chase, something of a tragedy in the arcs of multiple characters, and even a touch of a con movie, where the main character, Professor Humbert Humbert, is repeatedly duped by a master of disguise played brilliantly by Peter Sellers.  The undisputed center of the story, however, remains Professor Humbert’s unhealthy, immoral infatuation with the young Lolita, one which begins the moment he sees her sunbathing in a backyard where he is considering renting a room from her mother.  Even this early in the film, we know tragedy will ensue at some point after Professor Humbert, a brilliant James Mason, confronts and kills Seller’s Clare Quilty in the opening sequence before flashing back four years to the start of the story proper.  We also are made aware of the potential comedic elements:  Quilty is piss drunk during the confrontation, rising from underneath a sheet and donning it like a toga, attempting to play ping pong with his would-be killer inside a mansion that looks like it just hosted a party for a group of out of control rock stars. 

Four years earlier, we learn that Professor Humbert came to the United States to lecture on French Poetry at a college in Ohio.  He plans to spend the summer in the north east and he is looking for lodgings when he first meets Lolita, played uncomfortably well by a 14-year old Sue Lyons.  Prior to her appearance, it is clear that Professor Humbert isn’t remotely interested in renting this particular apartment.  Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, has been giving him the hard sell, pushing herself and the “progressive” intellectual environment of the town as much as the room, making it clear in the subtle manner of the movie that she might be available as well.  Their dialogue introduces Clare Quilty, who apparently had conducted a workshop in the town sometime back and generated quite the impression as a gifted playwright, but Professor Humbert listens only with the vaguest of interest, unimpressed with Charlotte or the room for rent.  His lack of interest continues until they enter the backyard and he sees Lolita listening to her radio in sunglasses and a swimsuit, and instantly becomes enthralled.   Life is never the same for him after, emotionally or physically as he tolerates the mother to spend time with the daughter, attempting to insert himself in her life anyway he can.  He takes them to the drive-in, even chaperones a school dance, anything to be around her.  Simply watching her hula hoop results in rapt attention.

At first, Lolita herself is depicted as the typical flippant youth of the early 60’s, having grown up in relative peace, prosperity, and plenty.  The look in her eyes when she tilts down the shades at their initial meeting suggests a deep, abiding boredom, a feeling that something about her is beyond her years, and forever looking for some kind of thrill. The presence of an older man in the house, who she is well aware her widowed mother is interested in, presents a much needed opportunity for diversion.  She doesn’t seem entirely unaware of his interest, lightly flirting with him on occasion.  Professor Humbert keeps a diary and records his impression of her, “What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, of every nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script.”  In the meantime, Charlotte is unaware of the Professor’s infatuation, but soon grows resentful of Lolita’s intrusions on their time together anyhow, almost acting as if her daughter was the one interested in Humbert, and decides to ship her off to Camp Climax for the summer.  Professor Humbert marries Charlotte in Lolita’s absence, but happiness eludes a couple with different goals and barely a few weeks pass before Charlotte discovers the real object of her husband’s desire in his diary.  The scene begins with melodrama even before the discovery; Charlotte contemplates suicide, apologizing to the ashes of her dead husband for straying, and waving around a supposedly unloaded gun. Professor Humbert discovers its loaded and considers whether he might kill her by accident, claiming he didn’t realize there were bullets in the chamber in a bit of play acting as newlyweds are prone to do. Things take a decidedly darker turn, when she flees the house and is killed by car, ending the first act of the film.

So far, it has been relatively easy to tell the victims apart from the perpetrators.  Professor Humbert has clearly victimized a lonely woman in Charlotte, manipulating her into a marriage simply to spend time with her daughter. It is equally clear that he now plans to victimize the daughter herself, perhaps even by force if necessary.  The death of her mother offers a chance to have Lolita for himself, and the audience is not surprised when he proceeds straight to Camp Climax to collect her. The Lolita he finds there, however, is somewhat different than the bored young woman who left home a few weeks earlier, something hinted at in a sweater that she mysteriously lost, suggesting she disrobed somewhere.  Overall, she seems more mature and more in charge, actively teasing him, even managing to eat potato chips suggestively, picking them out of the bag with her mouth.  It’s not long before she begins manipulating Professor Herbert to her own ends.  They take a room at a hotel and the following morning she informs him that she learned a new game at camp from a boy there and she would like to play with him after observing that he needs a shave.  Given the strict content codes of the day, the audience is left to imagine the precise nature of the game that Lolita whispers in Professor Humbert’s ear, but six months later, the pair are living in sin at the college in Ohio, and precisely who’s the victim in the relationship has become much harder to determine.  For his part, it seems Professor Humbert has been reduced to the role of jealous housewife, covetous of Lolita and over protective while she’s pretty clearly in charge of their limited domestic bliss.  He does the cooking and the cleaning, paints her nails, and dotes on her still bored stare.  He demands to know where she goes after school, and who she sees.  She’s forbidden to date boy’s her own age and participate in the school play.

Lolita chafes at these restrictions as normal teenagers will, but one also gets the sense this is a young woman that does what she wants, when she wants.  Her arguments with Professor Humbert seem to be purely for show from her side, delivered because he expects it from her, not because she cares or will change her behavior in any meaningful way.  This realization is not immediately apparent, but begins to become clear after Professor Humbert is visited by the school psychologist.  The audience immediately recognizes the man to be Clare Quilty in disguise and suspects this is some kind of scam because Quilty had already tricked Professor Humbert earlier in the film at the hotel, pretending to be a police officer and questioning him about his “daughter.”  This time around he sports a German accent and tells Professor Humbert the school is concerned about Lolita’s personal and (hinted at) sexual development.  He claims they plan to send in a panel of psychiatrists to observe the household and make recommendations for the future, more than hinting that Quilty knows precisely what is going on between the two.  To avoid that fate, Professor Humbert relents and allows Lolita to participate in the school play, but after the first performance he learns that she’s been lying to him about her activities, claiming she spends Saturday at piano lessons though she hasn’t taken a lesson in a month.  Professor Humbert is enraged and the two have a fight loud enough to disturb the neighbor, who informs the Professor that many have been whispering about his relationship with Lolita.

They decide to leave the following morning, but it’s not long before Professor Humbert realizes they are being followed by a mysterious car wherever they go. He is increasingly paranoid at this point, convinced the secret is out in the world and forces are converging from all around him.  What he cannot possibly know:  These forces have been unleashed by Lolita herself.  He doesn’t learn until three years later that she has betrayed him, leaving him without warning and taking up with Clare Quilty.  Indeed, the two have been conspiring together since Quilty tricked Professor Humbert at the hotel and Lolita has been infatuated with the playwright since the workshops mentioned in the early scenes.  The victimizer has officially become the victim, turning the power dynamic entirely upside down.  The Professor Humbert we see when Lolita vanishes from a hospital bed after recovering from a fever is a completely broken man, so desperate he needs to be restrained by the hospital staff. He is far from the erudite professor earlier in the film; unkempt, sweaty, and practically delirious. The manner in which both Professor Humbert and the audience learn the truth introduces an additional complexity.  He has not seen Lolita in three years after she disappeared, but learns in a letter that she is married and expecting a child.  The young couple was in desperate need of money and didn’t have anyone else to turn to.  Professor Humbert arrives at their humble abode, thinking the new husband must be the man that stole Lolita from him in the first place, but a far frumpier and pregnant Lolita complete with glasses confesses that she originally left him for Quilty.  She also reveals that she is far from madly in love with her new husband, although he is a good man.  He is also unaware of their dalliance or the existence of Quilty, making him a third suitor Lolita has manipulated and potentially victimized, but Professor Humbert doesn’t care.  Still in her thrall, he makes a desperate plea for them to leave together, breaks down in tears, hands over the money she needs, and flees the house to find Quilty and have his revenge.

The movie ends where it began, plus a short epilogue that details the Professor’s death from heart disease while awaiting trial for murder.  The audience is left largely on their own to figure out what this means and how they feel about it.  Unlike Kubrick’s later work, Lolita is filmed in a straightforward manner more reminiscent of the stage than the cinema at times.  The shots are long, allowing the action to flow uninterrupted, but the overall filming style is restrained and unsparing.  This is years before Kubrick perfected his patented tracking shot, where the world itself seems to swirl around the characters, putting them in a capsule of their own making where Kubrick is entirely in control of what comes in and out.  The filmmaking artistry of Lolita is in letting the actors speak for themselves and the audience decide, however uncomfortable or concerning these choices may be.  Any decision as to hero and villain is made more difficult by an oblique script that refuses to confront the reality of a 40-something year old man’s sexual relationship with a 14-year old.  We do not even witness so much as a single kiss between the pair.  The dialogue and staging are subjective, satirical, and suggestive:  Consciously, we know what is happening and that it is morally repugnant, but the film never lets us experience it viscerally or emotionally.  There is a clinical detachment broken only two times.  First, when Lolita learns of her mothers death and cries uncontrollably until Professor Humbert promises to buy her a new stereo.  Second, when Humbert himself breaks down in front of Lolita at the end.  This, along with the understanding Professor Humbert is truly and desperately in love with her, allows the audience to sympathize with his perspective and ultimate treatment more than we possibly could otherwise, far more than we should in any rational sense for a man a slight step up from a pedophile.

The structure of the film itself also supports this turnaround, similar to what Kubrick would explore later and perhaps even more darkly in A Clockwork Orange.  Like Alex in the sci-fi classic, Professor Humbert starts out as the villain in the story, desperate to take advantage of a young girl, but as the narrative progresses he is increasingly the victim until we are embedded in his point of view at the end.  One might even suggest that love has robbed Professor Humbert of his freewill the same way Clockwork’s procedure steals it from Alex.  The man at the end is a shell of his former self in both cases, and Kubrick augments this in Lolita with another, more cultural and temporal component.  Prior to meeting Lolita, Professor Humbert is a man of letters, buried in his study of French poetry and the “divine” Edgar Allan Poe.  His life is in these books, but the same is not true of Charlotte or Lolita, or anyone else in the film.  For Charlotte, the trappings of intellectualism and a pseudo-progressivism are the goal.  It’s about acceptance in what she considers privileged society, not the deep pleasure of closely engaging with the art.  She says some of the right things because this is what she believes Professor Humbert wants to hear, instead of any true commitment to literature.  Lolita, on the other hand, seems completely oblivious to it all.  For her, life is about pleasure and experience.  She’s bored by everything else, only participating in the play to spend time with Quilty.  Art and literature are therefore not even a means to an end.  They might as well not exist, except as playthings to manipulate others.

The rest of the world as depicted in Lolita is little better.  Charlotte’s two friends, the parents of Lolita’s friend from school, are swingers, openly discussing it in the first act with an obviously uncomfortable Humbert, a person who they have barely even met.  Quilty is supposed to be an artist, a celebrated playwright, but from all the audience can tell he’s a conman and an attention hound, more interested in cheap tricks than great works, not even remembering all the people he has manipulated over the years.  Professor Humbert, clearly flawed as he is, appears to stand alone as a true lover of Western art and culture rather than a debaser and destroyer.  One gets the sense that he is an island in a world that is collapsing into puerile pleasures, and the younger generation is bored even of those sensual delights.  Given he cannot escape his infatuation with Lolita herself, it’s difficult for the audience to escape their own conclusion that this collapse is inevitable and unstoppable, well past the tipping point.  The great world of the past, those who climbed the summit of art and literature, and, because of the early-60’s time period, those who kept the world safe for democracy during World War II cannot do it any longer.  Debauchery and the pursuit of instant gratification will overcome everything else, a world of malts, French fries, soda, and potato chips, what the audience sees as some of the chief interests in Lolita’s life.  In that sense, the film can surely be seen as prescient.  Lolita escaped both Humbert and Quilty, but grows up only to be with a man she doesn’t love, living a meager existence, far from any greatness she might have once aspired to, making it the story of the West itself in the second half of the 20th century.  As Kubrick puts it via Professor Humbert, the “a best men shave twice a day,” but poor Lolita isn’t even aware of the adage.  She, like the world around her, is too far into the decline and fall.


2 thoughts on “Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and the collapse of Western Culture”

  1. That scenario is not uncommon IRL – that of a mid-age mother using her naive, sexy, young daughter as bait to attract a man of means. And there are many variations of that theme. Does it, or any of them, ever work out?
    I enjoyed your summary and analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good point. I appreciate your taking the time to read it and your kind words. I tend to prefer Kubrick’s later work, but Lolita is an excellent film and it certainly stands the test of time in my opinion. I think it’s dated in the sense that there’s no actual sex, but I could see a clever director realizing smut on screen is limited and doing it more of a satire and comedy of manners.


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