People who say Stanley Kubrick couldn’t deal with sexuality in his work are wrong. He dealt with it — just not in ways that Americans are usually comfortable with. Like the tech wonk he was, he liked to take sex apart to see how it worked, and in this low-key riff on Nabokov — the first of many Kubrickian attempts to confound audience expectations — Humbert Humbert’s lust for Lolita is almost incidental to Kubrick’s total view of people as poseurs. Sue Lyon’s Lolita is calculatedly deadpan, shrugging off the helpless adoration of James Mason’s respectable-seeming professor Humbert; Shelley Winters’ Charlotte Haze (she’s excellent in this) needs to be loved just as much as she needs to seem sophisticated. Kubrick adored working with Peter Sellers, who arguably did his best work for Kubrick. A case could be made that the real Kubrickian hero of the piece is Sellers’ Clare Quilty — detached, hip, somewhat dorky, obsessive. Pauline Kael described him as “Humbert’s walking paranoia, the madness that chases Humbert and is chased by him.” Essentially, Kubrick uses Nabokov’s story, and sexual fixation in general, for a meditation on people driven mad by what they can’t have; the movie is funny, but there’s also considerable pain in it — perhaps Kubrick’s last film to be truly emotionally accessible.
TEXTBOOK KUBRICK MOMENT: The opening sequence, which begins the story at the end; it features some wonderfully suggestive ping-pong business, and finishes with a justly celebrated image of a painting.