This article inaugurates a new department at Bright Lights, revisiting a film from the past that is being given new life through a new release or a different medium, in this case the June 28, 2017 debut of Titan Comics’ Dragon Tattoo comic series. (And for those who simply want to reacquaint themselves with this intriguing film and series, Netflix is featuring the three Swedish entries as Dragon Tattoo Trilogy: Extended Edition at this writing.)
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I have a bisexual friend whose mom told her to “pick a side!” If author Stieg Larsson had not died preemptively, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) might have been told the same thing by a producer unconfident that an action thriller could be this reluctant on action, or a sex exploiter this luxuriously critical of films with sex in them. The energy that balances the system comes from a nuclear reactor of a spirit housed in a 4’11” powerhouse of hidden fire and a heart that I have to imagine must flutter like a rabbit’s.
As Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace abstractly towers as the tiny Swedish computer hacker who lives in her hoodie and subsists on hard stares and cigarettes. Wherever she goes, she finds herself beneath trees of men looming in the icy fog of the grey Scandinavian coast. There’s a scene in Silence of the Lambs where Jodie Foster steps into an elevator with a throng of six-foot suits and ties and focuses her eyes down to her cheap shoes. Lisbeth Salander lives in that elevator every day.
No, Larsson’s feminism isn’t subtle. The book was actually titled Men Who Hate Women, and in retrospect we have director Niels Arden Oplev and Noomi Rapace to thank for turning that whip-cracking point into a diorama of anxiety and eyeshadow, named not for the point it hopes to screw down but for the physical corollary of its rebellious energy. Lisbeth doesn’t act “feminist” or act “bisexual,” but is their roaring spirit in a waifish Goth’s underfed body. If Oplev were making a Renaissance quest story, with heroes named for their dominant trait (some variation on Temperance, most likely), Lisbeth would be the Knight of Repression.
Her flinty eyes climb over pages of bank records and newsprint as she tries to find a girl killed 40 years ago. I can’t help but recall the wizarding world of the web in Sandra Bullock’s The Net, that glam cyberpunk du jour for the generation preceding Microsoft. Oplev may be the first to direct an Internet that “works,” and rightly attests that the heroes of the 21st century probably won’t flaunt their derring-dos in three-piece dinner jackets – they’ll be sitting somewhere enacting quiet revolutions in discount pajamas and cigarettes.
Inflammatory reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) figures he has nothing to lose before going to prison for libel when called about a favorite niece some mansion-bound coot claims to have lost four decades ago. Blomkvist is no lounger – like most movie reporters he leaves the house without brushing his teeth. But he’ll resist your definition of a movie hero with every unshaven glance, at each honest angle of the slight paunch beneath his barely-trendy street clothes. David Fincher made the point a bit better perhaps when casting Blomkvist as Daniel Craig, that devilish post-modern Bond you just wince to see in anything that doesn’t have a peak lapel.
Nyqvist’s submissive smolder makes him the perfect object of a subject as aloof as Salander. She spies on him through his computer, sexes him without seducing him, towers over him from beneath his unshaven chin. Salander treats sex like a hearty handshake, not staying in bed longer than she has to, severing the submission with as much dignity as she can. She has none of St. Teresa’s ecstasy, no orgasmic touch of god in an act she initiates, as though letting it happen to her is a loving crime, but a crime as severe as the acts committed in the name of religion against the innocents she’s searching for. I wouldn’t describe the atrocities in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as gang-rapes by God, but go ahead and add “atheist” to its laundry list of labels. The sensitive ought not to watch Swedish cinema in general, but they will no doubt be grateful that this particular film advocates values through the actions of its femme fatale rather than her words. There are memoirs burnished into her eyes, as Nyqvist looks after her as she leaves, feeling less like he made love to an equal than that he just brushed someone else’s teeth. As a result, the film settles into its images, rather than bother with the official case file of its plot. It’s got Agatha Christie shit to do, but that’s just the low-cut dress it uses to lure non-academics into its sexual deconstruction chamber.
Oplev wisely sticks to the things that happen in a film that could have preached the reverse of the social coin Larsson (through Oplev) seems to despise. His film is full of gratuity, with one torture rape searing particularly into memory, but sex violence is never the point (as Quentin Tarantino might fight exploitation with exploitation). Even the most troubling violence is “a thing that happens.” Nonchalance is the real issue, as though the American Friday night action flick should be hard to swallow after Oplev sends it up with his army of one septum-pierced recluse and a greying reporter.
Lisbeth Salander ends up being taller than Nyqvist, Oplev, and even Larsson. In these new terms she would be more vulnerable if she was actually sexy. Instead, she commands a suspended idea of sex, a beauty in abstract. Rapace wields its power like a dragon contained in its girl tattoo. If there was a Surrealist’s Swimsuit magazine, she’d be on the cover.
But what of the plot? Nothing says intrigue like photos on the wall at the local precinct, but in a post-NYPD Blue cable TV world we’ve spent longer in front of that damn board in a single season of Castle than the average homicide cop does in a bullet-riddled lifetime. Oplev passes the cop movie plot but with a hurried nod like you pass through a suspicious smoke cloud on the way to your car. He wisely sticks closer and harder to Lisbeth herself, who may not be the best tour guide (if she were more aloof she’d be in a different film), but she’s more eviscerating than any advocate’s issue and harder to solve than the most labyrinthine plot. You’ll leave without being turned on or worked up, with more of the idea of her image than the sense that you used up a hero for some dime-store novelist’s action schlock rigmarole or sex fantasy.
There have been great female approximations of male heroes, but Lisbeth feels like the first time a film really gives us the woman the raucous feminist spirit thinks itself to be. Part of me floats on the guilty luxury of my own desire to see more, more, and another part wonders what Katharine Hepburn would have to say about all this.