Discovering the anti-heroines (Femme Fatales) Dolores Haze, Lola Montes, and Louise Brooks

September 25, 2022 20 mins to read
Michael Garcia Mujica
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Please be advised that the following article contains major spoilers for the films Lolita (1997), Exotica (1994), and The Lover (1992). If you haven’t yet watched these movies and wish to avoid spoilers, you may want to return to this piece after viewing.

The narrative trajectory of the anti-heroine, emerging from a whirlpool of chaos as our quintessential femme fatale, features prominently as a recurring motif woven intricately into the larger fabric of literature and cinema. Her presence murmurs tantalizing enigmas, as riveting as a sonnet’s closing couplet, extending both the steadfastness of a reliable companion and the intrigue of an as-yet-undeciphered riddle. Her nature, both magnetic and elusive, fuels the narratives in which she exists, guiding them towards their unforgettable climaxes.

Her aura, tinged with an elusive allure, carries the effervescence of “je ne sais quoi,” a captivating difference that distinguishes her from the chorus of commonality. It’s a quality, nebulous or tangible, that infuses her persona with an exotic enchantment and a charm that transforms her into a riddle garbed in silk and shadows.

In the realm of narrative tropes, anti-heroines serve as emboldened incarnations of human resilience, stalwarts facing the indomitable, embodying tenacity as naturally as breath. Their passion, a spark that can be kindled in us all, serves as a luminous testament to their audacious spirit.

Femme fatales, colloquially christened as “bad girls,” represent a unique shade of the anti-heroine, coaxing the audience into an unlikely dance of defiance, imploring them to champion the virtuous in the face of the tempest.

The crucible of their tribulations forges a bond with us, sparking a recognition that radiates warmth. We celebrate these characters, their resilience mirroring the unwavering strength buried within us, lying in wait for a catalyst to unfurl. These anti-heroines, in all their audacious veracity, stand as potent symbols of the raw force that roars to life when we summon the courage to bare our inner mettle.

Table of Contents

Before the flappers of the 20th century, there was Lola Montez

Caught in a captivating dance of life mirroring art, and art echoing life, the genesis of the femme fatale archetype may trace its roots to the infamous Lola Montez. A courtesan and dancer of 19th-century Europe, Montez ensnared the fantasies of a king and stoked the fires of salacious hearsay.

In unearthing the historical chronicles of Lola Montez, one can’t help but be ensnared by a sense of reverential awe. The femme fatale, though she tiptoed into the history of American literature around the same epoch as Montez’s ascendancy, didn’t truly explode onto the scene until the dawn of the twentieth century.

While the femme fatale is, to an extent, the embodiment of primordial anxieties surrounding female sexuality, the echoes of the audacious Lola Montez reverberate in the fictional bloodlines of her literary progeny. The spectral similarities between the real-life courtesan and her narrative descendants are compelling, if not strikingly palpable.

Lola Montez-circa-1850-Photography-Studio-Southworth-and-Hawes
This ca. 1850 image of Lola Montez by Southworth & Hawes is considered to be the first photograph showing a lady smoking.

Notorious mid-19th century “It” Girl

Lola Montez was born in 1821 as Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland. While details of her early life remain somewhat obscure, it’s clear that she acquired considerable social skills and linguistic fluency before deciding to pursue a career as a dancer.

Working her way from Dublin to London, she eventually met Ludwig I of Bavaria and soon acquired a considerable reputation. She reinvented herself in various countries, changing her name to Donna Lola Montez, Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, and eventually just Lola Montez.

Although she doesn’t resemble the conventional storybook figure, the historical Lola Montez is undeniably a femme fatale – and a marvelous muse for film noir characters.

The Lulu Cycle, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Lolita

The results of reading Diary of a Lost Girl (1905) by Margarete Böhme and the “Lulu” cycle, a two-play series—Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904)—by Frank Wedekind, which were both adapted by G.W. Pabst and starred Louise Brooks, lend credence to the hypothesis that Nabokov drew inspiration from these works for Lolita.

In a similar vein, Wedekind’s “Lulu cycle” introduces a young woman named Lulu who resembles Lolita in many ways. Lulu, for example, is a mysterious nymph with a propensity for seducing and controlling men.

Furthermore, during the time when Pabst’s films were being shown, Nabokov was a big fan of German silent films. Given these connections, it’s safe to assume Nabokov saw or read Pandora’s Box. Indeed, because Pabst’s films were widely available in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nabokov was very likely aware of Wedekind’s work.

Also, Wedekind’s “Lulu cycle” and Böhme’s Diary of a Lost Girl, both feature strong sexual undertones. The young female protagonists were also victims of the men with whom they were involved, particularly the older men. They addressed issues of rape, prostitution, pregnancy, and childbirth. Despite these similarities, Nabokov’s work is distinct from that of Wedekind and Böhme. Nabokov’s work more clearly explored the implications of female sexual autonomy and agency, whereas Böhme and Wedekind seemed more interested in exploring the consequences of older men preying on young women.

Lulu, played by Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box.

The Lulu mythos surrounding Louise Brooks

It is probable that silent film star Louise Brooks was another likely source of inspiration for the name “Lolita,” which is a form of Dolores, Louise, and Lola.

Although Dolores “Lolita” Haze doesn’t share the same physical description as the historical personage Louise Brooks, she does evoke memories of Brooks’ Lulu persona, which demonstrates that Nabokov may have disguised a homage to Brooks, in plain sight. Not only are you able to foresee the connection between these two, but also an alternative title for Lolita, if that’s at all possible.

Hence, Lolita, at the center, is about a young girl’s life falling apart and can be difficult to follow. Nabokov’s decision to name his novel “Lolita” was a clever and appropriate one. Lolita shows not only the story of an abused young girl and her ruin but a reference to the “Lulu mythos” surrounding the historical Louise Brooks.

Unraveling innocence: an allegorical and metaphorical exploration of Jane March’s ‘The Young Girl’ in The Lover

Jane March as "The Young Girl" in The Lover (French: L'Amant), a 1992 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
In the Veil of Innocence: Jane March portrays “The Young Girl” in The Lover (French: L’Amant), a 1992 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Wrapped in an old linen dress and a fedora, her lips adorned with a nude pink hue in the shape of a heart, she evokes an alluring reflection of Lolita’s timeless charm.

In the 1992 film, The Lover (originally “L’Amant” in French), Jane March performs with a delicate touch, portraying “The Young Girl”, a character draped in innocence. Adorned in an aged linen attire and a fedora, and with lips enhanced by a heart-shaped nude-pink, she radiates an elusive charm, reminiscent of Lolita’s perpetual allure.

Allegorical Interpretations:
March’s depiction of “The Young Girl” stands as an allegory of youth’s intricacies and naivety. Her faded linen attire denotes the passage of time and the transient nature of innocence. The heart-shaped, nude-pink lips convey vulnerability and emotional depth, portraying the hidden aspects within the character that ache for unveiling.

Metaphorical Journey:
The disparity between “The Young Girl’s” appearance and the innocence it insinuates, juxtaposed with her behaviour’s subtler nuances, metaphorically mirrors the elusive journey towards self-discovery. As spectators, we are enticed to delve into the dichotomy of innocence and desire, recognising a labyrinth of complexities and hidden emotions beneath the exterior.

Jungian and Freudian Insights:
From the vantage point of Jungian analysis, “The Young Girl” exemplifies the archetypal persona, reflecting the role she adopts to navigate social interactions. Her heart-shaped lips could signify the anima, the feminine facet of the male psyche, enticing and drawing the male protagonist into her enigmatic sphere.

In the Freudian sphere, “The Young Girl’s” character might be considered an exploration of the Oedipal complex, wherein the male lead wrestles with taboo desires and emotional intricacies. Her allure elucidates the complexities of youthful femininity, ensnaring the protagonist with a blend of innocence and sensuality.

Enigmatic Revelation:
As “The Young Girl,” portrayed by Jane March, evolves in The Lover, the character metamorphoses into an enigmatic tapestry, prompting us to ponder the mysterious interplay between innocence and allure, desire and restraint. Her portrayal serves as a potent reminder that the human experience is a mosaic of emotions and intentions, often intricately interwoven.

In this allegorical and metaphorical journey, The Lover navigates us through an exploration of human complexities, unravelling the shrouded innocence at the character’s heart and the enduring allure that resonates with undertones of Lolita’s elusive charm.

Enigmatic stasis: Mia Kirchner’s Christina and the captivating Kubrick Gaze

Mia Kirshner as Christina in the 1994 film Exotica by Atom Egoyan.
Mia Kirshner as Christina in the 1994 film Exotica by Atom Egoyan.

The arresting frame of Mia Kirchner portraying the character of Christina is one imbued with profound enigma and allure. She is caught in an ethereal moment, gazing upwards at another character in the film, her eyes hinting a subtle acknowledgment of the audience. Decked in a schoolgirl outfit, she emanates an aura of innocence and vulnerability, a stark contrast to her otherwise complex persona.

Her fingers dance idly around the straw of her drink, suggestive of a playful, albeit mysterious, demeanor. This duality of Christina’s character, encompassing both naivety and mystique, amplifies her magnetic allure. It draws the spectators into the labyrinth of her world, leaving them intrigued about the depth of her motives and emotions.

This image composition echoes a captivating Kubrick gaze, a cinematographic technique that was often employed by the acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick. This gaze compels viewers to engage with the underlying currents of the narrative and the characters, creating an intimate connection between the viewer and the cinematic experience.

Kirchner’s gaze as Christina carries an uncanny resemblance to this technique. Her look is both direct and evasive, creating a hypnotic draw for viewers. The duality in her demeanor, the schoolgirl innocence and the enigmatic mystery, mirrors the contradictory nature of the human psyche, a recurring theme in Kubrick’s work.

This frame, therefore, serves as a window into Christina’s character. It invites us to delve into her narrative, to navigate through the paradoxical nature of her personality, and to question and contemplate the subtle undercurrents of her motives and emotions. In doing so, it reminds us of the complexity of human nature and the captivating power of the cinematic gaze.

Unraveling enigmatic depths: Mia Kirchner’s Christina in Exotica – an allegorical and metaphorical epilogue

Enigmatic Charm: Mia Kirchner mesmerizes as Christina in the 1994 film Exotica by Atom Egoyan, exuding innocence with her pigtails and glasses. Echoing shades of Lolita’s allure, she gracefully draws us into a world of captivating mystery.

In the final act of the 1994 film Exotica, Mia Kirchner’s character, Christina, takes on an entirely new dimension that radically alters our understanding of her. Her innocent schoolgirl attire — pigtails and glasses — belies a more intricate truth that has been subtly woven throughout the narrative. With the shocking revelation that Christina is the protagonist’s babysitter, the film masterfully peels back the layers of complexity, echoing shades of Lolita’s intriguing charm. In this realm, appearances deceive and unexpected truths form the core of a deeply affecting narrative.

Allegorical Dimensions: Christina’s elusive charm can be interpreted as an allegory for the complexities that underpin human relationships. Her role as a babysitter to the protagonist’s daughter signifies the juncture of innocence and responsibility, reflecting the multifaceted nature of interpersonal connections. The ambiguity surrounding the nature of her relationship with the protagonist mirrors the veiled truths and complexities inherent in human interactions.

Metaphorical Layering: The contrast between Christina’s innocence and her mysterious aura metaphorically probes into the enigmatic nature of human desires and emotions. Her character embodies the delicate equilibrium between trust and suspicion, love and longing, inviting viewers to ponder over the intricate aspects of human connections and the layers beneath the visible.

Jungian and Freudian Insights: Viewed from a Jungian lens, Christina’s allure in her role as the babysitter represents the archetypal anima, symbolising the feminine aspect within the psyche of the protagonist. Her presence ignites introspection and exploration into the protagonist’s own desires, vulnerabilities, and subconscious motivations.

Through a Freudian perspective, Christina’s role as the babysitter might hint at the concept of transference, wherein feelings and emotions from one relationship are redirected onto another. The nebulous nature of their relationship provides room for conjecture, reflecting the complexities inherent in suppressed desires and emotional entanglements.

Intriguing Denouement: As Exotica concludes, revealing their past relationship, the enigmatic allure of Mia Kirchner’s Christina gains new dimensions. The film’s climax leaves viewers contemplating the profundity and influence of human connections, recognising that what resides beneath the surface often surpasses what is immediately visible.

In this contemplative denouement, Exotica compels us to engage with the enigmatic dance of understanding and interpretation, acknowledging that the human experience is as complex as the characters that weave it.

Through the looking-glass: a metaphorical and allegorical interpretation of the climactic scene with Swain’s Lolita

Dominique Swain as Dolores “Lolita” Haze in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 drama Lolita.

In the climactic scene featuring Swain’s Lolita smoking a cigarette while pregnant and wearing glasses, we are, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland, invited through the looking-glass into a world where appearances and realities intertwine, creating a complex tableau of metaphor and allegory.

Metaphorical Interpretation:
The scene may symbolize the inherent contradictions within Lolita’s character and situation. Her act of smoking a cigarette during pregnancy can be seen as an indicator of her rebellious and self-destructive tendencies. This represents a loss of innocence and a precocious maturity. The smoking could suggest an attempt to assert control or cope with her circumstances’ demands and responsibilities.

The glasses might serve as a metaphorical shield or disguise, indicating she could be concealing her true feelings, thoughts, or vulnerabilities behind an outward display of maturity or sophistication. They may also hint at a degree of emotional detachment, a coping mechanism used to insulate her from the emotional fallout of her actions and relationships.

Allegorical Interpretation:
Allegorically, the scene could encompass broader themes present in Lolita’s story, such as the fallout of forbidden desires, the loss of innocence, and the manipulation of power. The scene offers a visual manifestation of the complexities and consequences that arise when older individuals exploit the young’s vulnerability and naivety.

Further, the scene might critique societal pressures and expectations imposed on young women, compelling them to mature prematurely and confront adult situations beyond their capacity. It can be seen as a critique of a culture that objectifies and sexualizes young girls while paradoxically condemning them for behaviors borne out of their own exploitation.

Jungian and Freudian Perspectives:
From a Jungian perspective, Lolita’s rebellious actions and hidden feelings might symbolize the shadow, the unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify with.

Freudian analysis might see Lolita’s smoking and the adoption of an adult facade as reaction formation and displacement, where socially unacceptable impulses or burdensome feelings are transformed into their opposites or redirected.

Ultimately, the interpretation of the scene will depend on the viewer’s perspective, their familiarity with the context of Lolita’s story, and their personal experiences and beliefs regarding themes of youth, desire, and power dynamics. The critical approach to such scenes, with sensitivity and critical thought, considering the broader social and ethical implications they might convey, is of paramount importance.

From time immemorial, an examination of the muse mythos as it pertains to Lolita

By fusing together the themes of European fairy tales, sentimental literature from the seventeenth century, and Freudian theories around the sexuality of childhood and the oedipal complex, Vladimir Nabokov creates a novel that is as original as it is thought-provoking.

Nabokov’s novel Lolita is a fanciful and memorable character study in psychosexual and literary theory that, like “Lolita” herself, is provocative, original, and deeply disturbing. Ultimately, it seems that Lolita is a satire of sentimental fiction rather than an embodiment of it.

For instance, the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, tried to coax young Dolores “Lolita” Haze into a daring affair, as if it would open the door to something remarkable. It’s no surprise that this idée fixe is as old as sin itself, yet Lolita finds a way to bring the story to life and paint it with its original vividness. Unbelievably, Nabokov was able to craft such an iconic work of art from timeless themes.

Because Nabokov penned Lolita as a reimagining of these canonical tales. He sought to address what he perceived as a moral issue in these stories: the treatment of young women by much older men. This allowed him to examine issues of power, objectification, and gender roles in innovative ways.

Humbert’s very first love wasn’t Dolores Haze—it was Annabel Leigh. The latter captivated his heart; the story in which Humbert, as a child, falls in love with the terminally ill Annabel Leigh “in a princedom by the sea” enthralled him to the core.  It is said that Nabokov’s “Annabel Leigh” was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s poem entitled “Annabel Lee.”

Annabel Leigh represents a girl who, although fragile in the face of death, is strong in her will and passionate in her spirit. As such, she is a perfect foil to Humbert’s first wife, Valeria, who epitomizes power, wealth, and status.

Virginia, Poe’s wife, is commonly believed to be the inspiration for “Annabel Lee.”

In the same way, Humbert admits to having a dual nature, so he fulfills both the protagonist and antagonist roles appropriately. Despite Lolita‘s reputation as a controversial novel, Nabokov does not portray Humbert in an entirely negative light. Rather, he focuses on the psychological complexities that come with being human and having inner conflicts, particularly in relation to Humbert’s love for Lolita. To further emphasize his point, Nabokov chooses to narrate the novel from Humbert’s perspective, enabling the reader to better comprehend how he perceives his situation and his feelings for Lolita.

Consequently, Humbert weaves a web of lies and devious deeds, leaving his true intentions shrouded in mystery. His crafty ways are as cunning as they are sinister.

Moreover, Nabokov was able to demonstrate how traditional tales could be read in new ways by presenting a character who had to deal with these issues in a 20th-century setting. This risk helped distinguish Lolita from other literary works and establish it as a literary classic. It also struck a chord with readers and provided them with a fresh perspective on issues of authority and sexual objectification.

The Allure of an Enigma

Critics have often remarked on the fact that Lolita does not merely satirize sentimental fiction; it is a reflection of its own absurdity. This is especially true because the main character, Humbert Humbert, attempts to present the novel in a sentimental light. In doing so, Humbert reveals that his love for Lolita is only an imitation of true emotion. For example, in his love notes to Lolita, he says things like, “I can’t wait any longer to tell you that I am the happiest man alive because I love you madly,” and “It is impossible for me to tell you how.”

Additionally, since its publication in 1955, Lolita has been seen as a classic example of the muse mythos, a trope in which male characters are inspired by their female counterparts. In this case, Humbert Humbert is infatuated with Lolita and uses his love for her to create a narrative that he hopes will be accepted as genuine emotion. However, his words are full of irony and sarcasm; they are attempts to cover up his true feelings while simultaneously mocking the concept of “true love.”

When Love Dies, So Does the Muse

Contrasting Reflections: A tale of contemplation and poise amidst the journey of life. Humbert Humbert played by Jeremy Irons confidently drives forward, lost in thought, while Lolita played by Dominique Swain ponders the moment by his side.

When love dies, the muse dies, or so Vladimir Nabokov may have thought. This is illustrated very well in Lolita. An allegory of this can be drawn from the novel. Love, often seen as a muse or an inspiration for people, is a powerful emotion that can lead to great achievements or terrible misdeeds.

Nabokov clearly explored this idea by demonstrating the devastating consequences of letting love die with Humbert’s descent into depression, obsession, and ultimately despair. When Lolita leaves him, she took the only source of joy he knew with her.

 I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.

Vladimir Nabokov

Following this further, Humbert’s actions throughout the novel—his objectification of Lolita and disregard for any other perspective—exemplify how love in its purest form can be distorted, leading to unhealthy relationships.

Thus, Lolita provides an interesting commentary on the nature of love and relationships, serving as a timeless reminder that sometimes things aren’t always what they seem.

Discover the ties that bind Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Lolita together. Just what parallels do you see?

In conclusion, the femme fatale is a timeless archetype in both cinema and literature. She is a complex character who uses her beauty and sexuality to entice those around her. While she may be dangerous, she is also fascinating and alluring.

In light of the interrelationships between the three books: Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, and Lolita. Just what parallels do you see? How would you characterize the variations? Thus, Lulu, Thymian, and Lolita become a sort of spider’s web in which the author’s and reader’s minds become entangled in an intricate game of wits.

An interesting tidbit: According to Delia Ungureanu, assistant director of the Harvard Institute for World Literature, another source of inspiration for Lolita was Salvador Dali’s character, Dullita, who appears in both Reverie: An Erotic Daydream and The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.

Hence, this notion is fascinating because it exemplifies the pervasiveness of intercultural exchange in the first decades of the twentieth century.

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