Monday, December 26, 2011

Thoughts on Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

Last night we went to see the Fincher "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." Travis and I have both seen all three Swedish versions with Noomi Rapace, and I've read the books as well. We both had concerns going into the movie based on word of mouth, early press and marketing, the lead actress's appearance, and in general what on earth an American take on a female character as complex and different and unfeminine as Lisbeth Salander would look like. It's one thing to love her and identify with her on the page - do American audiences really want to be face to face with a woman whose punk/goth image doesn't cross into more traditionally sexy versions of punk and goth?
One of my major problems with our culture and Hollywood movies is the seeming requirements for any thriller or action film with a female star. We. Can. NOT. Allow a woman to just be a strong heroine. She has to be pretty (according to a commonly accepted aesthetic). She has to have a love interest. At some point she has to use sex to get something. Most of the time she has to be a victim of some sort, which usually comes with some sense of vulnerability or need to be protected. I will now happily entertain all examples you might have to the contrary that do not include either Sigourney Weaver in "Alien" or Linda Hamilton in the "Terminator" films. This is not a criticism to be leveled against any specific actress or film, but rather an observation about the bigger picture of American pop culture. Men are frequently allowed to be middle aged, single, and/or unattractive. Women rarely are.
Enter Lisbeth Salander, who is definitely not conventionally pretty. She is not trying to fit in, be popular or have boyfriends. She's done things to her physical appearance that most Americans consider unattractive. She's extremely intelligent and resourceful but hides it. She is possibly either autistic or has Aspergers (according to some interpretations). She doesn't (seem to) want friends or companionship, she doesn't (seem to) care if people like her and she (seems to) want to be left alone. She's angry and doesn't try to sublimate the anger in order to fit in. But she takes care of herself. She doesn't rely on anyone else. She doesn't care about laws. Whether you agree with her actions, she is a strong and independent character.
The first time we see Noomi Rapace full on as Lisbeth in the Swedish film her appearance of hostility force you to take several steps back. We eventually see the vulnerability she brings to the role but it's not until later in the film. The initial impression is This Girl Is Going To Kill Me.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish films.
Get the point? But the marketing campaign for the Fincher version has shown a very different girl.
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the Fincher version.
When I see these images, I don't see a woman who ties up her rapist, blackmails him and tattoos his crime on his stomach. I see a girl who needs a hug and maybe a sandwich. And, to me, that's not Lisbeth. I listened to reviews and read articles about the film as well, such as this one about the new film softening her image. And I think oh dear god, they made Lisbeth palatable for Americans. I fully expected to hate this movie and to be writing a rant right now about how David Fincher screwed up. But I think there's something more complex going on than just a reimagining of the character.
First of all, the images I posted above of Mara don't reflect the Lisbeth we see on screen. This is much, much closer:
Actual images of Rooney Mara from the film.
Look at that. When she's not totally naked with a helpless, doe-eyed sad look on her face, it's a different character. Still not as hard edged as Rapace's version, but very different from the image we were sold. This impression from the previously linked article was exactly how I originally felt:
"Rapace’s fully clothed Salander was replaced with Mara’s sexy Lisbeth – baring her cleavage for the camera, baring her ass for a tattoo, standing in front of a wintry landscape topless, straddling a bike in underwear and tights, or posing in a tutu. (All can be seen in’s Image Gallery.) The woman fighting against objectification had become a sexual commodity to the public at large. Eventually, the marketing material changed focus, but it was too late – Salander was already made into the sex object. She had become another female ass-kicker swathed in sexy, revealing clothing, balancing tough smarts with alluring sexiness."
But. Is she "sexy?" Not in the nude shots but in the actual film? Not really, not "traditionally." And actually I feel that Rapace's Lisbeth is far more beautiful. There are still things I dislike about Mara's appearance though - lack of hair in her face, less hostility in her dress and posture. Rapace's Lisbeth hid constantly, slumped over or behind her hair, behind more makeup, trying to not draw attention. Small differences maybe, but as a designer they say completely different things about Lisbeth. One is a woman who went through horrible sexual and physical abuse and came to the conclusion that the world wasn't going to help her and so chose to withdraw as much as possible from public notice. This is widely supported in the books. Larsson's Lisbeth goes to extreme lengths to keep all details about her life private. She wants to disappear and be left alone. I don't feel that this is out of some sense of feeling less about herself, a self-confidence issue that Mara's version isn't experiencing, rather I think that it's a very likely response to the kind of violence she's been subjected to her whole life. I think that it does Lisbeth, the story, and rape and violence victims everywhere a disservice to not show that more frightened side of her. Not everyone gets to go through a rape and emerge a woman who can look most people in the eye and not give a fuck. Lisbeth is more real and more interesting when she's seen as a strong woman who at the same time battles the need to drop off the map forever.
And it's interesting to me that we are missing the point about the MARKETING being the issue here. If the Lisbeth shown in those photos with Mara is different than the actual one that Mara creates, what does that say? That we need to be enticed by sexy helpless girls in order to watch a movie? That we can't be trusted to intelligently walk into a film without prejudgements about its female lead being what we fantasize about?
Other comments from that article, and my comments on them:
"Mara’s Lisbeth is seen through a Hollywood filter. She’s sexy, tough, in-your-face, always belligerent, and childishly snarky."
Lisbeth as tough, in-your-face, and belligerent is in the book. And it's in the Swedish film.
Is she sexy? That's entirely up to an individual's opinion, but I do not believe the actual film portrayal shows as much sex as the marketing did. Is she childishly snarky? In the book, I think so. It has been awhile since I read it, but there are definite parts where Lisbeth shows a level of immaturity.
"Instead of t-shirts about aliens and Armageddon, hers are laden with cheap, Hot Topic-esque f-bombs."
I...what? I'm assuming that the comment about aliens and Armageddon t-shirts is a reference to the Swedish film, but I don't remember seeing those clothes at all. That doesn't mean they weren't there, but I don't remember. I only remember one "f-bomb" t-shirt and didn't mind it all, and also didn't find anything she wore to be similar to what one might find at Hot Topic.
"In one moment when Lisbeth wears a disguise, Fincher has her strip down to her expensive and revealing underwear. We watch her walk around like a Hollywood bombshell from the neck down, rather than a troubled girl so uncomfortable in her skin after years of abuse that “what she saw in the mirror was a thin, tattooed girl in grotesque underwear.” The Lisbeth who saw “her skinny body as repulsive,” but still had “the same desires and sex drive as every other woman” has become the modern femme fatale."
It's in the book. And it's hinted at in the Swedish film. Yes, when she's conducting the heist at the end, she wears designer underwear. And underwear makes a huge, huge difference in how you look.
"In a pivotal moment in the book, Lisbeth says: “I’m going to take him” and runs off as Blomkvist tries “to shout to her to wait.” In Fincher’s film, she asks him for permission, and only acts with his blessing. Perhaps we can accept the changes in how Mara presents Salander. But it’s unacceptable to take a woman made into a phenomenon because of her solitary strength and particular moral compass and drive, and turn her into a romantic girl saved and guided by a man."
Ugh. Yes, the part where Mara asked for permission to kill the guy was probably the worst movie line since Jeremy Irons's "IT'S TIME TO DIE!!!" from a movie I don't want to admit to having seen. Yes, that was unacceptable. But I don't see it as part of a larger pattern with Fincher's film. It's a big misstep, but just one misstep.
In contrast, Rapace's Lisbeth flies off after Martin and actually has a chance to save him before walking away and letting him burn. She makes the conscious choice to let him die, and Blomkvist reprimands her harshly for this, saying that Martin was abused as a child and that his upbringing would have screwed anyone up. Rapace fires back that Martin had the same chances as anyone and he deserved what he got for being a rapist and serial killer. As far as I have found, this is not in the book. The Fincher version is much more faithful to Larsson's.
"The final scene of the film sledgehammers this idea home if the rest of the subtle and obvious changes to Salander do not. Both end on the same note, but it means wildly different things on the page and screen. On the page, there’s an air of miscommunication – the reader can see both side’s motivations for what arises and how it’s all a sad comedy of errors. On screen, every sexy, romantic addition makes the final moments all about villains and victimization, especially when matched with a whimsical, child-like score. Lisbeth loses her agency."
And I didn't read this at ALL in the film - I saw the same ending as the book. The Swedish film ends with Lisbeth in the Cayman Islands off on a version of her "heist" from the end. She stops by the prison, drops off the information that Blomkvist needs to clear his name, gives him a quick and awkward kiss and runs out the door. One of my favorite things about the books is the very last sentence or paragraph of "Hornet's Nest," which suggests that Lisbeth, who has been deeply hurt by Blomkvist, has decided to tentatively allow him back in her life. That moment is lessened when we don't get to see whatever miscommunicated thing caused her to feel that hurt.
Something that I've now observed about Mara vs. Rapace (I re-watched the Swedish two days ago): Rapace is clearly the better performer. She's more magnetic, she's more complex, her interpretation is far more subtle. Given some of the changes the Swedish film made, which allow Lisbeth to do things like let the guy die in the car and shout about his upbringing not being the point, I think what might be happening is that Rapace has made such an impression on audiences that we've kind of substituted the events in the book with the events in her film. Lisbeth in the Swedish film is even allowed to provide Blomkvist with the first big clue, the one about the Bible verses (she emails him seemingly out of the blue with this information because she's still spying on his computer). In Fincher's and in the book, it's Blomkvist's daughter that brings this up. Also, the Swedish film all but cuts out the Palmgren parts, which help in the book to soften and humanize Lisbeth. Instead we get a quick exchange with her mother at the end (who does not survive the book), but it doesn't really substitute for seeing Lisbeth reach out to someone who respected her and earned her trust, or watching how devastated she gets at his stroke. Rapace is given more opportunities to be a badass, fewer opportunities to appear vulnerable and she's a more commanding performer. The result could be that we're walking away thinking that the character of Lisbeth has changed because it's different than the one portrayed in the Swedish film, not because it's different than the Lisbeth in the book.
I listen to Filmspotting regularly and I know that they were among the critics who talked about the changes to the character. Where does the character of Lisbeth Salander originate? Is it in Larsson's book, or with Rapace's performance? I have no problem with critics who want to discuss a movie as a separate work of art from the book it's based on, but why then do we draw comparisons to the Swedish adaptation?
So, Fincher and Mara and everyone who loved this movie, I was wrong. I enjoyed it. It wasn't perfect, but it was faithful to the original source material
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