We never actually witness the crime or the unspeakable act in “Lolita,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film based on the 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. There are no scenes of kissing, intercourse or even hand-holding between the middle-aged Professor Humbert and his adolescent step-daughter Lolita. The characters speak in rumors, not even discussing hypotheticals of what the professor and Lolita are up to, but just the fact that they might be up to something. The same holds true for us watching at home, never seeing the forbidden act, but only condemning the professor for his relentless, pathetic pursuit of such an act. Does he want sex? Does he want to rape her? Does he want to entrap and marry her? We don’t know for certain, all we know is that is wrong.
This blindness to the forbidden is how Kubrick ponders whether it have been worse to see Lolita and the professor engage in their rumored sexual activities, or is it more depraved just to imagine what had happened? That same hypothetical could be applied to the development and production of Lolita itself. In Nabokov’s novel, Lolita is only 12. In the film, she is 15. The film’s poster even teases this controversy with the tagline “how did they ever make a movie of LOLITA?” Making Lolita 18 years of age would have softened the controversy but removed the impact of the plot. Keeping her 12 would have turned away moviegoers, as it’s one thing just to imagine the couple’s inappropriate affair while reading a book, but it’s another to see it come to life through talking pictures on a giant screen. So, we arrive at the median age of 15, still gross enough to propel the story, but not too gross to keep audiences away.
Kubrick is well aware of this controversy in his film and uses his trademark attention-to-detail to keep us uneased when watching “Lolita.” In fact, he does this from the opening title sequence, where we see an anonymous hand starting to paint the toenails of an anonymous foot. It’s a bizarre sequence and feels wrong, as we more commonly associate hand-holding with affection, not hand-feet holding. Also, painting one’s toenails is something a person can accomplish on their own, having another person there during the act seems intrusive and unwelcome, even wrong. However, there’s a distinct affection in this scene, that both the anonymous hand and the anonymous foot are enjoying their shared, nail-painting ritual.
Feet, or rather Lolita’s feet, become a recurring motif throughout the film. When the professor first stumbles upon Lolita in the backyard, she’s wearing a swimming suit and a frilly hat, with her open feet dangling to the side. When he and Lolita share a hotel room, Lolita lays on the bed and kicks off her shoes, arousing the professor. And finally, when the two have sequestered into their new living situation after her mom’s death, we see the professor painting Lolita’s toenails, while harping on about her interest in boys. The professor fashions himself as an intellectual, as an accomplished man, but here he is, getting his forbidden, hedonistic kicks by painting an adolescent girl’s toenails.
It’s gross, and weird, but also, kind of funny. When the professor first arrives at Lolita and her mother’s home, he says it was the “cherry pie” that convinced him to stay there. And one can’t help but chuckle when the professor drives to pick up Lolita after her mother’s death and spots the “Camp Climax” sign from the side of the road. It makes us wonder if we should be laughing at the professor or condemning him, or both. Technically, nothing that we’ve witnessed so far is illegal. It’s certainly immoral and unconscionable, like when the professor thinks about killing Lolita’s mother, but she just dies in a freak accident to his convenience. Or when the professor doesn’t immediately tell Lolita her mother has died, only until he’s in a car with her miles away from her camp. It’s what happens in the in-between of these moments, between the professor and Lolita, or the thought of what happens, that really boils us.
This judgmental environment of hypotheticals that surrounds both the subject matter of “Lolita” and its production immediately brought to mind another film of Kubrick’s that deals with erotic themes but is much more revealing: “Eyes Wide Shut.” In that film, an overarching theme is that of fantasy vs. reality. Nicole Kidman’s character reveals she had a fantasy of cheating on Tom Cruise, but never actually went through with it. This sparks Cruise to embark on a night of sexual exploration on his own, where he encounters numerous women whom he could have sex with, but doesn’t ever commit the deed. “Eyes Wide Shut” was deemed controversial for its explicit nudity and graphic, sexual scenes, but little attention was given to how the actors felt during production. Shooting lasted over a year, and there was even a prolonged point of time where Kubrick wouldn’t allow Cruise to set to see Kidman on set, who was his wife at the time. While Cruise and Kidman have stated their joy of working with the legendary director on his last film, one wonders their actual thoughts were during production, if they felt mistreated or possibly abused.
But, it’s this elaborate interweaving of fantasy vs. reality, imagination vs. the actual act, when we don’t see but can only guess where Kubrick achieves his mastery. It is in the unenjoyable anticipation of potentially witnessing something foul and profane, but never actually achieving that, where his “Lolita” elevates to art.