The law makes it abundantly clear that sex with someone under 18 is unacceptable.
But because it is such an uncomfortable, forbidden topic, we don’t get taught why it is an unforgivable crime.
“Lolita” certainly isn’t Stanley Kubrick’s best film. But it is his most convincing. Kubrick makes statutory rape feel disgusting, disgraceful, and destructive.
When we first meet Dr. Humbert Humbert (James Mason), he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. Humbert is a British professor who is coming to America for a teaching gig.
Humbert rents a room in the house of an annoying, libidinous widow and he puts up with her as best he can. Humbert’s real problems begin when he meets his landlady’s teenage daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon).
Humbert has an instant crush on Lolita. He watches her. He thinks of her while he’s having sex with her mother. Gross, to be sure, but not yet criminal.
The crush evolves creepily into obsession. Humbert wants nothing else in life than to be with Lolita. Disturbingly, he convinces himself that she wants the same. Kubrick shows us how a self-centered man can mistake a girl’s friendliness and flirtatiousness for actual attraction.
When Lolita’s mom dies, Humbert makes his move. By acting as the teen’s official guardian, they can live a seemingly normal domestic life while having an illicit affair.
Humbert has everything he wanted; he has triumphed. Not so fast. Humbert gets the girl – but in the process he loses his soul, and his mind. Stanley Kubrick demonstrates that Humbert’s relationship with Lolita isn’t just wrong, it is completely self-destructive.
Humbert has to be both father and boyfriend to a teenage girl, and that is an unenviable task. He ends up angry and possessive. He’s scared of losing her and scared of being caught. And he’s right to be scared.
In the hands of most directors, “Lolita” would be a straight-forward drama. Or a thriller, with Humbert as the villain. But Stanley Kubrick chose to make a comedy, and his unorthodox decision makes sense. Humbert isn’t just a monster, he is an embarrassing loser. We are right to chuckle and squirm as the professor ruins two lives with one insane decision after another.
I’m amazed at James Mason’s commitment to the role of Dr. Humbert. Mason was one of the biggest movie stars in the UK. He did not have to risk it all to play a disgusting pedophile. But he does a marvelous job. We hate Humbert with all our might but we still feel his humanity and his suffering.
Sue Lyon is perfect in an equally challenging role. She is a normal teenager: emotional, rebellious, and irresponsible. We see that she needs genuine love and all she gets is selfish adults who want to use her. Ultimately, Lolita is put into the unwinnable position of choosing to submit to Humbert or go away alone to an orphanage.
“Lolita” is a triumph of cinematic vision and bravery. It’s one thing to tell people that sex with someone under 18 is unacceptable. It’s another thing to prove it convincingly. This movie should be mandatory viewing in every high school.