More has likely been written about Lisbeth Salander in the last few years than any other literary character—at least until a certain Hunger Gamer came along. Even though I hadn’t read any of the Swedish trilogy featuring Salander, I was certainly aware of her, and the three Swedish films featuring her to the point that screening David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo felt a little like coming late to the party.
A side effect was that I was conscious, more than usual, of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth being a product of a series of choices rather than a more spontaneous entity, choices evidently made by Fincher and Mara together. Mara’s version of Salander is the key to the film of course. Without it working, the film, the trilogy, nothing works, no matter how good Daniel Craig’s Blomkvist is (and he is).
Dragon Tattoo is the kind of film—and Fincher is the kind of director—where you’re in a sense always aware of the director’s firm hand on the controls. (Paul Thomas Anderson comes to mind, too; Magnolia is coming soon.) Especially in what you might call a rather routine murder-mystery plot. At times, I didn’t even bother to think about the string of clues, because I was thinking of Lisbeth/Mara and Fincher’s blue-steel approach to the whole enterprise.
In that context, I was surprised to discover that Mara’s Salander seemed so small and vulnerable, since she’s akin somewhat to a superhero in the novels. I realize that it was the point; she turns victimhood on its head by first owning it, and then retaliating. And given Mara’s doe-eyed expressiveness, it seems more likely that there is a volcanic rage within her than if she were just, say, a blanker slate, a grimmer, robotic avenging angel, a Terminatrix.
But the sexual component of all of it is what I kept thinking about it long after the film had ended. The thrust of the trilogy, as I have read, all stems from author Stieg Larsson’s desire the chronicle the insidious, horrific things some men do to women—and to spring to life an avatar who could do her own fighting back without having to rely on a protector.*
But for Lisbeth’s character arc to resonate, she must first be debased. Thus we have her humiliated in all sorts of stomach-churning ways by a Swedish social worker, culminating in a rape scene that made me wonder if I’ll ever want to pop this disc in the player ever again. She brings the payback in spades; that’s the key, but she never stops seeming damaged.
From there, we see Lisbeth trying to connect with others in the best way she can, sexually. First with a woman at a club and later with Blomkvist. The difference, obviously, is that these are her choices and they stem from desire, not violence. But it was difficult for me to not feel Fincher’s camera, his eye, during all of these scenes, rendering the material to level of titillation in a way that made me feel unsettled. In felt, in a sense, like another violation. Batman gets to be Batman without the added indignity.
I guess this is a long way of saying of that Mara’s nudity, at times, made me uncomfortable in a way that may have been intended or perhaps in a manner that is a byproduct of my own psychology. There seemed to be an extra beat, a need for the camera to linger over her admittedly fascinating figure in a way that felt almost gratuitous. We feel drawn to her in a way that Blomkvist does, and by that token in a way that Fincher does. She’s mysterious, opaque, and there can’t help, in the end, being a sense of voyeurism to it, that despite Lisbeth Salander’s best efforts, she remains more of an object than a breathing person.
As I said above, movies, especially films such as these, which work from widely known source material, are a series of choices. And I have little doubt that Fincher was entirely aware of the provocative effect of Lisbeth’s sexuality would have on the viewer; he’s one of the most mannered and controlled filmmakers around. Mara’s version of Lisbeth is his creation not Larsson’s, his Athena, and he wants us to watch her as he sees her and he wants us to be as intrigued as he is.
Does that mean that Dragon Tattoo isn’t the tale of feminist empowerment that it’s branded to be? If, say, Kathryn Bigelow had made the film instead of Fincher, would it read differently, would it include the same images? Impossible to say. In Fincher’s defense, I’ll say that his decision to continue to the film at length after the central mystery is solved in order to continue charting Lisbeth’s emotional progression seems like the act of an empathetic filmmaker, one who wants the viewers to care about these people—and one that distinguishes this film from the chilly emptiness of The Social Network.
But then, this is also the same man who put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box.
* It only occurred to me as I was writing this that this film comes on the heels of two older movies in which the central male hero threatens violence on the leading lady. It’s a complete accident, but shows how deeply rooted these has been in on our culture–and how it remains there.