Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita is in black and white, but we all know the colour of Lolita’s lollipop. It is the image that is most frequently conjured when we discuss Lolita: Sue Lyon, with heart-shaped sunglasses slid down her nose, a technicolour red pop perched between her rouge-tinted lips. Because this image has become more ubiquitous than the film itself, it is notable that the red lollipop never appears in Kubrick’s film. Yet that famous snapshot, captured by celebrity photographer Bert Stern and used for the film’s poster and marketing campaign, has cemented Lyon’s come-hither gaze in the minds of curious consumers.
The promotional poster for Una is lollipop-free, to say the least. This new film starring Rooney Mara serves as something of a Lolita update. Like the Lolita poster, the one for Una also features its star in close-up, but Mara appears in moody greys and blacks, emerging out of a shadow with a vacant stare and dark circles under her eyes. Her lips are hypothermically purpled. “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” Kubrick’s poster provocatively asks in its tagline. “Absence makes the hurt grow stronger,” the Una tag laments, the words trailing down Mara’s hollow cheek like tears.
Like its predecessor, Una is an adaptation, but instead of a novel, Una draws its source material from the solemn stage drama Blackbird. Scottish playwright David Harrower also wrote the film’s screenplay, and before making Una, the director Benedict Andrews staged a production of Blackbird in Berlin. Mara stars as Una, the Lolita to Ben Mendelsohn’s Humbert Humbert iteration, Ray. (This name introduces a subtle symmetry with John Ray, Jr., the moniker under which Vladimir Nabokov signs Lolita’s fictional foreword.) When she was thirteen, a bored and restless Una – Ray insists that she was wise beyond her years and sick of being treated like a child – initiated a three-month affair with Ray, her Hawaiian shirt-clad next-door neighbour and father’s friend. The film unfolds over the course of one day, 15 years later, as Una seeks Ray out for reconnection, reopening old wounds and triggering frequent flashbacks in the process.
Una presents the illicit relationship in the realm of complicated romance rather than perverse attraction. The story seeks to challenge our assumptions of deviance by suggesting that Una and Ray did share something resembling love. At the height of one altercation, Una asks Ray, “What could I possibly have given you that was not my body? What else could you have wanted? There is nothing else.” Allaying the hurt, Ray replies, “There was. For me, there was.” He adds later, “Whatever I was thinking, made me believe that I loved you.” Una scans as a textbook example of an insecure young woman doubtful of her capacity for love, motivated in part, she reveals, by years of insistence from her parents and therapists that any affection she had perceived from Ray had been an illusion. That bad men like him are only after one thing. The danger of instilling that aphorism, of course, is that girls grow up believing that they only have one thing to give. Minutes into the film, we watch Una have highly impersonal sex with a stranger in a club bathroom – a sad, sobering scene designed to make us squirm.
The most salient deviation from Lolita is that the story of Una definitively belongs to Una. When we meet Lolita, sprawled seductively on a towel in her backyard, we see her through Humbert’s eyes. Our introduction to Una belongs to us alone. The film’s opening shot reveals an adolescent Una, played by relative newcomer Ruby Stokes, staring gloomily into the camera in an explicit appeal for our empathy. Soon after, we watch as an adult Una somberly prepares for her visit to Ray’s office, donning strappy, attention-grabbing high heels and pale lipstick. Her nervousness is palpable, and as she clacks towards the building entrance, she stops to vomit in the bushes. Our access to Una’s distress during both stages of her life makes her a much more emotionally tangible female creation than the flat, fantastical object of obsession contrived by Nabokov and Kubrick. The title Lolita, for both film and novel, refers to Humbert’s idea of her; the diminutive is one that Humbert imposes on Dolores, and she never uses it in reference to herself. Una gives the impression of denoting Una the person.
A drawback to the new film’s approach is that it extinguishes any sense of Una’s vitality, hewing instead to her portrayal as a dour, elaborately damaged woman. We are led to believe that her oscillating bouts of despondence (she bursts into tears during sex) and hysteria (she angrily knocks everything off a table during a fight) erupt out of a deep-seated pain that has oppressed Una ever since she stopped her rendezvous with Ray all those years earlier. This misery is also apparently to blame for her near-Machiavellian faculty for manipulation. We watch as she schemes to stalk Ray and his new family, convincing one of Ray’s employees to bring her as his guest to a dinner party at Ray’s house through quick lies and petty pleading. Unlike Lolita, Una is not a particularly appealing character.
By paying little attention to Lolita as a thinking, feeling human, Kubrick’s film retains an effective portrait of Lolita’s magnetism – a striking, pleasing quality that animates and drives her story. “I suppose almost every male has momentarily lost his heart to a nymphet devouring a banana split at Howard Johnson’s,” film critic Andrew Sarris wrote in his Lolita review for The Village Voice. Today, we immediately dismiss this type of remark as archaic, and rightfully so. It is very much of our moment to point out that the scopophilic pleasure Sarris describes is outright icky. In its grim didacticism, Una seeks to correct for this toxic banana split rubbernecking. Its moralizing mission is to rescue the nymphet from Sarris’ hungry gaze. In our enlightened age, Una seems to proclaim, we know better than to portray our nymphet as cheerful and carefree. But by belabouring her suffering, the film denies Una agency in a different way: she may be emotionally well-rounded, but she is dead inside.
How do we fairly portray a nymphet? Are we obliged to render her a miserable purple-lipped corpse, as Una chooses to do? When Marielle Heller made The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015, adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical account of an affair she had with her mother’s boyfriend when she was fifteen, Heller’s bold choice was to imbue the quirky teen with a strong prurient curiosity. And when, at a Sundance Film Festival panel, a male viewer demanded to know whether Heller intended the movie “to condemn pedophilia or glorify it,” she replied: “Neither. I had one intention, which was to tell an honest story about a teenage girl and what it feels like to be a teenage girl.” Neither Lolita, a confectionery glorification, nor Una, a lifeless condemnation, ever quite achieves this type of honesty. Sex and innocence will always converge under expressly thorny circumstances, as Una makes clear. But there is a reason we are still fixated on Lolita’s red lollipop.