The Girl Who Got Diminished
The Movies had never quite seen a character like Lisbeth Salander before, and so her first appearance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor) was a startling — and welcome — wonder. Tough, smart, and competent, yet also wounded and searching (though she may not have known it) for friendship, Salander was a fully rounded and fully human woman, as much of a conundrum of a mess, yet still a sympathetic one, as film so frequently and unremarkably allows male characters to be… and so rarely allows female characters to be, unless, perhaps, they are to be chastised and punished for it. Bad things do happen to Salander, but not as punishment for her behavior and attitudes: the bad things are, in fact, what shapes her behavior and attitudes. Perhaps the biggest rebuke Salander faces is in the indignity that comes from how the English-language versions of her tale, novels and films alike, label her: as a “girl.” She is an adult, not a child, not even by a metaphoric stretch of the imagination. And at least onscreen — as portrayed by the electric Noomi Rapace — she more than stakes out her own ground as a character who demands to be taken seriously and treated as a person worthy of, you know, personhood.
That person — that Lisbeth Salander — remains the riveting centerpiece of the two films that follow on from Dragon Tattoo, but, alas, her continuing story has been winnowed down in a way that makes it — and her — feel smaller than before. The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, as films, were originally destined for Swedish television — it was only after Dragon Tattoo the film became such a phenomenon that they moved to the big screen — and they feel like it. As TV miniseries goes, they’re pretty darn good (and so are perfectly suited for DVD, too). As theatrical films, they feel a tad lackluster, more minor that the first film and ploddingly episodic: where Dragon Tattoo had something all-encompassing to say about the state of the world and how it treats women in general, the second and third films narrow down to focus on the details of Salander’s life that are not uninteresting in themselves, but represent a contraction of vision that feels at odds with the vital significance of the first film.
As Fire opens, it’s a year after the events of Tattoo, and Salander has returned to Stockholm after her on-the-run exile, where she immediately runs afoul of law enforcement when she becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a journalist who was investigating sex trafficking across Europe… as well as that of the social-welfare guardian, Nils Bjurman, she had such a terrible time with in the first film. No spoilers, but though there remains a thematic connection with the first film — in the widespread sexual abuse of women — Salander’s involvement in events now is both forced, in some instances, and wildly coincidental in too many others. The coincidence level continues to increase as the crime procedural that unfolds in Fire — as Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) work separately to clear her name — continues into Nest, which picks right up where Fire leaves off, lending an even greater sense of TV-episodicness. Nest tapers the tale down even further, winding up in an extended courtroom battle that — again, no spoilers — makes Salander’s involvement in the first film feel like a preposterous fluke of fate, and everything we’ve seen in the latter two films feel like a paranoid conspiracy fantasy. While on a plot-driven level of crime-solving and cat-and-mouse gameplaying between good guys and villains, it’s satisfying enough, it’s hardly the most plausible way to explore the notions that Stieg Larsson, author of the trilogy of novels that form the basis for this film series, was interested in: the systematic social mistreatment of women.
And that’s without even touching on the absolutely ridiculous thing that happens at the end of Fire, which I fully expected at least a cursory explanation for, and never got. The moment feels fantastical, as if Salander had suddenly acquired comic book superpowers. Part of Salander’s appeal is that she is a real woman, but this moment tossed that aside, and it’s almost unforgivable.
Almost. Salander’s outrage rage, and the cold calculation with which Rapace portrays her, are still a marvel to behold. I wish these last two movies were more worthy of her.
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden)
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language
official site | IMDB | trailer | more reviews at MRQE | more reviews at Movie Review Intelligence
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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes)
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong violence, some sexual material, and brief language