Movie Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Caution: Spoilers)

Last night I went to see the Swedish film adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling detective trilogy. The dialogue is in Swedish, with excellent, unobtrusive English subtitles.

What a strange and haunting experience watching this film is.

The plot is a pared-down version of the novel’s story. It retains a lot of the complexity of the relationship between queer hacker Lisbeth Salander and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist. The extraordinary richness and emotional texture of Larsson’s book is considerably flatter in the film version. For example, Blomkvist’s unconventional relationship with Erika Berger, the Editor of Millenium, the magazine for which Blomkvist writes, has been completely written out of the script.

What really works in this film is the superb casting of Noomi Rapace in the role of Salander. Rapace’s sensitive treatment of Lisbeth’s strange and somewhat disturbing combination of inner strength, will to survive, insecurities and profound “alternative” femininity is splendid. While looking very butch and closed off at first, Rapace’s gaze and facial expressions quickly open a portal into the rapidly shifting sands of Salander’s mental landscape and feminine persona. Lisbeth processes the ordinary world in an extraordinary way – her experience of rejection, abuse and exclusion because of her difference makes her react powerfully to words and actions that the rest of us, who live in the “mainstream” just gloss over. Rapace’s rendition of the Salander character opens this experience of a radically different interpretation of the ordinary world we live in to the viewer – to see our world from the perspective of a queer ward of the state who lives on its fringes is both intriguing and profoundly disturbing. Salander’s relationship with Blomkvist is powerful and unstereotypical – it feels organic and real, not the usual Hollywood rendition of a queer girl who goes mainstream by finding love in a straight relationship. The age difference between Lisbeth and Blomkvist is intriguing too, but not as developed in the film as in the novel. So much to think about here.

The bleak Nordic landscape provides a ideal canvas for this story – it’s filmed from a distance, with wide angle shots of trains from a great height and a long distance. This technique emphasizes the feeling of distance that is a theme in the story: distance between the characters; the 30 years of distance in time from Harriet Vanger’s disappearance and the present in which the story takes place; the distance between the characters’ current behaviours and the experiences that shaped them earlier in their lives. The landscapes add a subtle complexity to the film’s delicate treatment of the tough issues of abuse, control and personal identity.

I have to comment on the violence. There is an undercurrent of violence: sexual, verbal, physical. We really see Larsson’s background as an activist and advocate for human rights shine through these elements of the story.

The resignation with which the characters face the violence, cruelty and desire to control of others is realistic. Lisbeth tapes her own rape, and we, as viewers, are shown her facial expressions communicate the fear, pain and humiliation she feels while her guardian violates her. We’re reminded that she’s been taping this, and we see her reviewing the video dispassionately, preparing to use it to blackmail her abuser. It’s a strangely human moment: Lisbeth uses the only card she has to retake control of her finances and her freedom – her body. She knows it’s a sacrifice, but she does it because it’s her only chance to escape him. The scene where she gets him back is shocking as well, but again, Lisbeth’s actions aren’t motivated by an excess of passion – she does enough to him to right a balance she feels has tilted against her. Certain that he will leave her alone, she backs off – and only asks that he disappear from her life.

Lisbeth wants to be free – she wants to feel a connection, but doesn’t really know how. She struggles with herself and with others. She struggles with her demons and her better self. She struggles with her instinct to help others, even though it means exposing herself to them and, surely, to the possibility of them trying to take control of her life.

On a more technical note, I was surprised to see several prominent product placements, from Lenovo, Ford, Apple and Volvo. It was subtle, but present. Interesting. Also, the plot is unusual, reaching several climaxes, which give the film a jarring cadence, adding to the to the unsettled feeling the viewer is left with. One thing I will warn you about is that if you’re squeamish there are a couple of scenes that will make you cringe or lower your eyes. Just saying.

Finally, one caveat about this film. The major flaw in this film is revenge.  One thing I often challenge in some contemporary filmic treatments of abuse and exclusion – they sometimes descend into the realm of revenge fantasy. Revenge fantasy is not a healthy way to face the problem of abuse. It might emotionally gratifying to think that abuse, exclusion and rejection can be dealt with by striking back at the abusers and dominators, but such an unloving response won’t solve the problem. It only creates a cycle of revenge. To forgive is to find true freedom.

The film hints at a moral or ethical struggle going on in Lisbeth’s mind, especially in the dying moments of the film, during a brief conversation she has with Blomkvist, but this reflection feels like an afterthought. This worries me, because really, the only real solutions to the problems this film raises lie not in open warfare between the oppressed and the dominant. A more constructive solution lies in building a society of mutual understanding, acceptance, inclusion and love. I think Larsson’s vision of class warfare and identity-group struggle comes from his Marxist and Trotskyist roots. That’s where Larsson and I part company.

This having been said, this film does achieve something extraordinary – it actually opens Lisbeth Salander’s world to us: a world of difficult people whose painful experiences are not normally accessible tot those who live in the comfort of the mainstream. Salander lives in a world of people and experiences who exist on the neglected fringes of our society. The movie treats their stories with seriousness and with sensitivity. That is so important.

Scenes from this film linger with me today. I get flashes of Lisbeth’s facial expressions in my mind. I am still thinking about it and processing it.

Very highly recommended.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Alex, Thank you for your thoughtful essay on the film. But, more importantly thank you for sharing some of your areas of life that are important. It is wonderful to read about another academic. I would love to meet you but I am on the other side of the country… and I am a lot older too but very young at heart ( must have been all that competitive swimming I did).. also, my uncle loved to fence and he grew up in France and the USA.

    All my best and I’ll look forward to reading more of your thoughts… even if I am a fine art photographer I am interested in everything. Susan

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