A slightly different version of this post was originally posted at the trans-feminist blog, The Second Awakening.
I already wrote in a more general way about The Girl Who Played With Fire a couple of months ago, but I had a lot of thoughts rattling in my head about it–more than I put into that review. There’s also been a lot of discussion of these movies on the feminist blogs I read, so I thought I’d make some comments here, too. This movie is built around the rape scene and general abuse of women in its predecessor, so sensitive readers are hereby admonished that this may contain triggers. I also need to note that I haven’t read the books on which these movies are based. I’m ONLY writing about the movies. I understand that there are some major differences.
For the most part, I don’t approach movies with any particular ax to grind, so I don’t default to a feminist or a queer reading of most movies. Usually, individual movies will suggest the critical tools that are most useful to understanding their value (or lack thereof). For example: my main cinematic drug of choice is horror movies. By their very nature, horror movies suggest psychoanalytic readings. Freud works. So does Lacan. I tend to use Jung when I approach horror movies, because I think he best explains the enduring appeal of horror movies even after they’ve lost their power to actually scare the viewer. You could use a feminist scalpel to dissect horror movies, or a sociological scalpel (especially given the interesting tendency of horror movies to mirror the social climate of their milieu), but these are secondarily useful, given that horror movies are specifically attempting to manipulate psychological effects in more radical ways than other kinds of movies. I also think that the greatest movies reward multiple approaches.
I don’t know that the Millennium trilogy is composed of “great” movies. Almost certainly not. But I do know that they are specifically tailored to a feminist viewpoint. And when they are subjected to a feminist critique, they are a serious muddle. On the one hand, they cast Lisabeth Salander, their title character, “the girl”, as a defiantly queer heroine who spits in the face of the patriarchy. On the other, they cater to the fantasies of middle-aged white men by providing them with a secondary protagonist to act as a surrogate. This is most obnoxiously played out in the first film when, seemingly out of character, Lisabeth, decides to become sexually involved with Blomqvist, the male protagonist. Given the systematic abuse of the character both in the text of the first film and in the revealed back-story in the second, this stands as a stroke fantasy for Blomqvist’s middle-aged het male identifiers. Blomqvist is a necessary character from one other point of view, too, given that most of the men in these movies are such monstrous avatars of misogyny that he functions as a kind of apologia. At least these films are smart enough to let Lisabeth Salander stand as the heroine of the story, though she tends to vanish from this role from time to time in the second movie. I note on my other review that Lisabeth strikes me as Holmes to Blomqvist’s Watson, and Holmes sometimes vanished from his stories, too, all the while remaining as the driving presence.
The depiction of rape in these movies is troubling, though. Not just because it depicts the act in elaborate, loving detail, but because it builds the whole plot of the second movie around the event. You can make an argument on the evidence of the first film alone that the rape scene is both gratuitous and filmed in such a way as to titillate the audience (one of my correspondents thinks that Rapace was “posed” during this sequence to suggest some level of enjoyment; I don’t know that I agree, but I can see her point). The second film’s treatment of the event using the footage from the first film has the unfortunate effect of defining Lisabeth Salander in relation to it. It also details further instances of abuse in her past. So instead of embracing the character as complicated and brilliant, it defines and motivates her as a victim and casts the film and series in the role of the rape/revenge fantasy.
At least the second film doesn’t go down the absurd path of Lisabeth and Blomqvist’s sexual relationship, which is a relief. Hell, the two don’t even share the screen together until the very last scene in the movie. I’ll give the movie props, too, for depicting Blomqvist as a kind of a sad sack white knight who doesn’t quite get there in time to save the damsel in distress. This film, like its predecessor, lets Lisabeth be a badass all on her own. It also surprised and delighted me by reinforcing her queerness. There’s a ridiculously hot sex scene near the beginning of the film between Lisabeth and her ex-lover that goes beyond the usual soft core fondling and kissing for a straight male audience. It’s a scene that has some level of authenticity. It doesn’t hurt that Noomi Rapace doesn’t fit the image of a straight male fantasy. I love that she has unshaved underarms, for one example. And the tattoos and piercings, too. (As an aside, there was some dumb college student in the audience when I saw the film that could be heard to audibly go “ew” when the shot of Noomi Rapace’s underarm came on screen. Suck it, tool; she’s not there for your jollies). One other nice thing about the queerness of the character is that it rebukes the occasional and ignominious depiction of gays in crime fiction as murderers and psychos (think Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train* or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs). I mean, there are plenty of queer detectives in print; not so much in movies and television.
In the final analysis, I enjoy these movies on a gut level, because if I think about them too long, my mind might talk my gut out of its enjoyment. They are thrillers first, after all, and though they’re pretty conventional thrillers, they still manage the odd set piece to set the pulse a-racing and they provide unusually interesting characters. There’s an image of Lisabeth at the end of the second movie that’s brutal and defiant at the same time and it might just summarize the series’ central appeal. Rape her, beat her, shoot her, bury her in the ground, it doesn’t matter. She’s indomitable. Men cannot destroy her. I’m looking forward to the third film.
*Bruno Anthony was created by Patricia Highsmith, as was everyone’s favorite sociopathic bisexual, Tom Ripley. Highsmith was herself a lesbian, which begs the question of whether she made her most interesting characters queer because she thought they were interesting, or whether she did it out of some sense of self-loathing. There’s plenty of writing about this out there, so I’ll just mention it in passing.
Also, The Silence of the Lambs strikes me as the touchstone for the Millennium pictures, given that Lisabeth Salander is a close cousin to Clarice Starling.