John L. Fell
Despair invents an act of demented disassociation with which the audience cannot itself become complicitly engaged because the narrative mode is not expressionistic. Instead, it is overlaid by self-reflexive irony upon irony. The book is written as a memoir-diary: "the lowest form of literature," its author says. Rereading, the writer discovers his fatal mistake in commission of the perfect crime.
Nabokov's plot intact, [Tom] Stoppard and Fassbinder have enlarged the döppelgänger motif (including plays on old movie scenes), politicized time and place, and exteriorized Hermann's aberrations by means of fantasized, conjectural intrusions.
Doubling, of course, here advances double narrative functions: the visual evidence of Hermann's disassociation during his lovemaking, shared by ourselves through either party's eyes, and the satirized Felix-double, authenticated by the protagonist alone. As a self-conscious design it is foregrounded during an episode when Ardalion, Lydia and Hermann attend a movie, a made-up American silent with funny German intertitles about twin brothers, one a murderer under siege from cops led by his brother….
With Hermann viewing his own primal scene, the audience as concurrent witness, the film has thus far been operating already in a kind of quadroscopic realm of voyeuristic permutations. Henceforth, the reflexive nudge of movie-within-movie complicates matters yet again, however ironically, its intentions underlined by Hermann himself, who once pretends to be a film director needing a double for his new production; he is trying to persuade Felix to work for him.
Politics prove to be less skillfully insinuated. Where the novel was denuded of topicality but for its satiric Bolshevism, the film plants depression brownshirts, reparations, Versailles, and anti-Semitism with stolid good intention. The effect is rather as if Nabokov and Christopher Isherwood had been assigned by Alexander Korda to collaborate on a film biography of George Grosz, a venture that could have amused but would hardly have satisfied either. (p. 60)
The director's, writer's and actors' triumph in Despair has been to translate Nabokov's largely conversationless world into a glittering mire of snobbish puns and monologues. Who is audacious enough to conjecture how Nabokov might have viewed such extensions of himself? Apparently he did enjoy the ping pong game in Kubrick's Lolita. (p. 61)
John L. Fell, "'Despair'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1979 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 59-61.