Within Lolita lies a very interesting and very well done story that feels as if it is split into separate parts or chapters that revolve around different things. The best bit about these chapters that feel separated is that when you feel one is in full swing, you remember what and how much the characters had to go through as individuals to get to this point before realising they've got to advance through an entirely new minefield altogether. Most of this realisation is done by Professor Humbert Humbert (Mason) and most of the chaos or indeed situations fabricated is either directly caused by or is because of Lolita (Lyon), the young teenage girl causing the havoc of the film with her good looks and what can be considered as either advanced seduction or pure naivety.
Notice how the film is named Lolita; an important aspect of breaking down whose story is being told and who's the lead character. Indeed, the film goes through all the setting up and includes voice-overs of the professor suggesting Humbert himself is the focus but looking at who goes on more of a journey and who travels the most, perhaps it would be easier to state Lolita as the protagonist. The first 'chapter' of the film or at least the first exchanges revolve around a definite power struggle in a large, old house. Humbert looks for a place to stay while he is on business looking for a job placement and is unsure on whether to settle at this accommodation, until that is, he sees Lollita in the garden in all her soft focus and bikini clad glory.
What follows is a trilogy of error between three individuals: Humbert, Lolita and Lolita's mother named Charlotte (Winters). The focus here is quite clearly love, but it is a love that will not be returned. Charlotte desires Humbert but he believes her to be an eccentric more than anything else whilst Humbert himself falls for Lolita who herself is involved in another sort of relationship, that being a parental relationship with her mother who dominates her and wishes to remain in control of the young girl. But the film is so well written that you do not identify this power struggle and then get tired of it, hoping it will move onto the next set piece. Instead, characters are given individual scenes and situations, each feeling different to the last, so that they can play off one another.
But this is not another screwball comedy where issues like love, immaturity and lust are dismissed as plot ideas to evoke a few laughs. There is a certain tactfulness behind the scene in which the romantic interest is first made aware, the reason being it takes place in a cinema in front of a film – Kubrick's love of the subject and the love the characters share for each other coming out in an iconic location. The recognising of the shot construction also comes into play here, when Humbert gazes at Lolita when at the dance and when both are in the garden initially. So the opening very much focuses on the balance of lust in the mother for Humbert; Humbert for Lolita and Lolita's struggles against her mother – a line that sums this up well is when Charlotte admits the love for Humbert and he replies somewhat dismissively that he 'knows what that feels like' given Lolita is in close proximity. Another interesting dynamic are the reactions of the third party when one of these power struggles are immediately occurring.
But the incident that kills off these opening power exchanges is a death, and quite a surprising one at that, more so because it does not affect the overall narrative and themes of love for someone of greater age difference. Instead, it acts as a catalyst for Humbert and Lolita to enter the next stage of their relationship and that's when the feeling I mentioned earlier kicks in; that sensation of sheer unpredictability when a minefield has been crossed and the film then threatens to move up to the next level of intensity. Kubrick also throws in a somewhat out of the blue juxtaposition shot when he cuts to a scene of Humbert singing in the bath after a somewhat eerie prior scene that is the death itself.
From here, implied sex and some more scenes revolving around the really nasty place in which Humbert stands in terms of his role follows on. Is he now the parental figure? Is his role of the lover like it always was? Or has it stepped up a gear because a certain element from the previous power struggle is no longer around to act as a superego to both characters. Whatever the situation and whatever the scene, Humbert's study of going close to madness towards the end feels out of place but in a very positive manner. The seduction and trickery during the scene at the hospital which floats to the surface hits relatively hard even though there is a reasonable explanation. Lolita is one of Kubrick's better contemporary efforts and no doubt probably aided in the downing of censorship with its implications and subject matter. That on its own is enough of a reason to watch.