February 01, 2011

The Millennium Trilogy: Why I loved it

dragon tattoo.jpg played with fire.jpg hornets nest.jpg

Trigger warning: This is a review of films which contain graphic sexual violence.

In June, Skye wrote a review of the first installment of the Millennium film trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Put simply, she hated it. Though she liked Lisbeth Salander, she though the violence, particularly the sexual violence, was gratuitous. She nearly walked out.

After reading Skye's review, I didn't exactly run out to see the movie. By the time The Girl Who Played with Fire came out on DVD, though, my interest was piqued. And clearly Skye wasn't going to want to watch it, so, one night, I grabbed it from the Red Box.

And this is where, for those new to Heroine Content, you learn that Skye and I are quite often NOT of the same mind.

I was floored. I think I watched the majority of The Girl Who Played with Fire without blinking. I thought it was fabulous. As soon as I finished it, I got The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from Netflix, and only a few days later I was in the theater watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

There is one point on which I do agree with Skye: it's difficult to separate my feelings about the films from my feelings about Lisbeth Salander. I'm going to do the best I can to address them separately, but they really aren't separable.

First, about Lisbeth. She's amazing. She's one of the better heroines I've seen since...ever. She's a real, flawed person--selfish, egotistical, occasionally heartless--but she's also an endless bad-ass. She's a tiny woman who has lived through a terrible ordeal (several, actually), and she's come out of it tough as nails, smart, and absolutely determined to be in charge of her own life. These characteristics follow her throughout the three films--she grows, but she remains true to herself. And she acts, for the most part, in the interest of her own self-preservation. Women so rarely get to do that in films.

Lisbeth is also my perfect heroine because she's just as impressive in the trilogy's last installment, in which she has almost no action, as in the first two, where she kicks ass and takes names. Her toughest moment, to my mind, was walking into the courtroom in the last film with her chains and her mohawk and her sneer--no fists or guns needed. It's all about presence. As I haven't read the books, I have no idea how much of that presence is written in and how much is Noomi Rapace's incredible performance, but either way, it works.

Lisbeth is not, however, a benign presence. She's violent. She punishes. In the first film especially, but really all the way through the trilogy, she's willing not only to kill, but, to some extent, to torture. As Skye mentioned in her review, Lisbeth reenacts her rape, putting her rapist in the role in which he put her. It's difficult to justify that. I can't, on a moral level, say it's OK. What I can say is that it's powerful, and it strikes me as a reasonable response to what has happened to Lisbeth, and one we normally wouldn't get to see. I was also very glad to see Lisbeth maintain her sexual autonomy as the trilogy progressed--so often, women who have suffered sexual abuse in films and television shut down sexually, unable to be touched or touch. This is not, in reality, the only response anybody ever has to sexual abuse, and I'm glad to see another possibility shown in Lisbeth.

Lisbeth is not the trilogy's only strong female character. Though her role is fairly small, and she disappoints me somewhat in the last installment, I also really liked Millennium magazine editor Erika Berger (Lena Endre). Erika doesn't have Lisbeth's badass factor, but she's a smart, brave woman. She's also a woman in her 50s who is honest and unembarrassed about her sexuality--another thing we never get to see. The other minor female characters are also well done, including Blomkvist's attorney sister Annika (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth's friend and lover Miriam (Yasmine Garbi).

Skye's biggest criticism of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was how much violence was shown, rather than implied. "A lot of screen time that could have been spent showing Salander's coolness," she wrote, "was instead used to show men beating the crap out of her." This is a legitimate criticism. All three films, but especially the first one, are graphically violent, Lisbeth is often the target, and the worst scene, in which Lisbeth is brutally raped, is returned to several times. For me, this worked, though it was awful to watch--had the horror of Lisbeth's rape not been shown, I wouldn't have felt so understanding about her retaliation. The graphic way in which all the violence towards Lisbeth was shown seemed to clarify her own need for brutality. I thought it was appropriate. However, I will admit to having a higher-than-average tolerance for cinematic violence, including sexual violence. It's not something of which I am particularly proud, but there it is.

My agreement with the way the filmmaker's chose to show graphic sexual violence goes beyond my having been able to watch it without being sick, though. I think the film's violence, and in particular Lisbeth's rape, which is a centerpiece of the entire trilogy, needs to have been graphic and shown repeatedly to work the way it does in the story. Lisbeth uses her rape, as horrible an experience as it obviously is, to obtain her freedom. It's her ability to do this, both in direct confrontation with her rapist in the first film and in the court system in the last film, that makes her so exceptional. If we hadn't seen and heard, more than once, the horrible things that happened to Lisbeth, the moment when we realize that it's those very events that are going to finally win her freedom for good wouldn't be so amazing.

The stories of the three films are, to me, of less interest than Lisbeth's character. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is more or less a who-done-it mystery, while The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest are more procedural type investigative journalism stories. All three are decent enough stories, but they aren't anything I'd be particularly interested in watching without Lisbeth. That said, even without the heroine, there is a common theme that, while I can't quite call it feminist, at least acknowledges that horrible things happen to women (rape, murder, sexual slavery, parental abuse, medical abuse, you name it). Though Lisbeth's primary motivation is maintaining her own autonomy, she, along with the male protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), also works to identify, expose, and punish those who harm other women. I can't fault that.

I'm not really sure what to make of the films' treatment of race. They major characters are all white, with Miriam Wu being the only meaningful character of color I noticed in any of the films. However, the films are also Swedish, and Sweden's population is over 95% white, so I'm not sure what sort of racial diversity should reasonably be expected.

Much as I loved the entire trilogy, I do take Skye's (and others') characterization of it as torture porn seriously. That's not how I saw it, but it's not an unreasonable read, either. In her excellent criticism of the films in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny writes:

It is clear that the author of the Millennium franchise did not intend to glamorize violence against women. Unfortunately, it's rather hard to stop the heart racing when rapes and murders are taking place in gorgeous high-definition over a slick soundtrack: part of the purpose of thrillers, after all, is to thrill. Decorating a punchy pseudo-feminist revenge fantasy in the gaudy packaging of crime drama rather muddles Larsson's message." Misogynist violence is appalling," the series seems to whisper; "now here's some more."

However, the real problem with sensationalising misogyny is that misogyny is not sensational. Real misogyny happens every day. The fabric of modern life is sodden with sexism, crusted with a debris of institutional discrimination that looks, from a distance, like part of the pattern. The real world is full of "men who hate women", and most of them are neither psychotic Mob bosses nor corrupt business tycoons with their own private punishment dungeons under the putting green. Most men who hate women express their hatred subtly, unthinkingly. They talk over the heads of their female colleagues. They make sexual comments about women in the street. They expect their wives and girlfriends to take responsibility for housework and to give up their career when their children are born.

The critique here is two-fold. First, that including the type of horrible violence that is shown in the Millennium trilogy in this type of film does, like it or not, glamorize that violence. I'm not sure I agree--as I said before, for me, it contextualizes Lisbeth's actions and her eventual victory more than adding any sort of thrill to the viewer's experience. The second criticism, though, is spot on. There are only two types of men in the world these films build--the nearly-perfectly sensitive guy Blomkvist (and a few similar minor characters) and the horrific predatory men who commit the crimes. There are no everyday misogynists here, and it makes misogyny look like something other than what it usually is.

I'm not sure I have it in me, however, to knock stars off a review because an action movie isn't realistic enough, and that is, in essence, what the criticism above comes down to. These films are about the very extremes of men who hate women, and the very extremes of a woman responding to that hatred. While it may not be literally relevant to the lives of most women, I don't think that takes away from the power of the stories, or from strength and grace of Lisbeth. I'm giving these ones four stars and Lisbeth Salander a well-earned place in my Top Ten Heroines list.

8 Comments

one of the things i particularly liked about the books - that was only alluded to in the movie - was berger's relationship with blomqvist and her husband. in the books, it seemed to be a very functional, somewhat distant, polyamorous relationship.

like salander, berger is also a woman very much in control of her sexuality. not only that, she's of an age where most women in film seem asexual.

Lisbeth is one of my all-time favorite movie heroines too.

The original title to the first novel is "Men Who Hate Women" and when the book was translated into English, "women" became "girls" and the reference to misogyny disappeared from the title. I don't know if the author succeeded in truly portraying everyday misogyny, but it was definitely more evident than in the movies, imo.

I imagine the Hollywood version of these films, scheduled to have Daniel Craig in the Blomkvist role, will make him the admirable hero even more than the Swedish films. I thought the books did a good job of leaving him an interesting, flawed male character, meant above all to be a model of a male witness to and active defender and supporter of women who have been abused. The modern anti-misogynist, sort of.

Lisbeth's rapes are used for her story, not Mikael's, which is what makes the difference for me.

I commented on Skye's review that I thought the scenes portraying the sexual violence were necessary to develop the theme and message, and I guess that's sort of how you took it as well. I tend to agree with your review a bit more for that reason, but like you said, not everyone has to take things the exact same way.

@ Kay
I too am a bit apprehensive of how the Hollywood version will tackle the very heavy stuff here.

I read the books so its hard for me to comment on the movies. I loved Lisbeth's character and the fact that she always put herself first. She has to since no one else ever did. There are other women in the books and they all seem to me to be more complex than the average female thriller character.

This was a good, balanced read. I'm a little more inclined to read the books than I had been, actually, now.

I think what challenged me the most when reading the novels, was trying to find a way to connect with a character like Lisbeth, who due to events in her life, has been turned into a person who is both sympathetic and almost as bad as the people she seeks to revenge herself upon.

I think it stems for me down to sexual politics. Stieg is very obviously absolute in his views. In the world as Stieg envisioned it it is men who are the problem. It was only ever men who hurt, and raped and abused.

Now the one question this bought up for me... is: Is that how women really see men? Are we all to them just sex-crazed maniacs waiting for an opportunity to use physical strength against them? To force ourselves upon them?

And do they all think men consider them to be weak and never equal to the task as we are. And we would all be 'surprised' that a woman can run a company equally as well as a man can?

And is he really saying I am to sympathise with anyone who would hate men who cheat, who hurt... but then seduce a married man into her own bed out of boredom. Or who proclaims to seek out those who hurt, and when tasked with finding a stalker she immediately eliminates all female possibilities for the vaguest possible reasons.

I apologise for ranting. I just felt like Stieg was somehow saying that it's only men who commit crimes of such perverse and horrible natures and that women are all victims or psychotic avenging angels with a propensity for invading the personal lives of anyone who utters a single word to her (seriously, is there a single person in the books whose computer she didn't hack?).

Sexism goes both ways. Evil goes both ways. There are just as many horrible, horrible women as their are men. It's just that when a man is victimised by a woman, it gets laughed out, because apparently a man cannot be hurt or abused or even raped by a woman.

Tristan

I agree with Kay about the books. And, also, so many characters had to be cut out to make the movies. In the second film, especially, all the "regular misogynists" in the police force and at the security company are missing/subdued in the film. Only the highlights and larger-than-life characters made it to the screen.

Re: Tristan, no. In the movies as in real life not all men are just out to hurt women. Several men are sympathetic characters, including all the men who work at Millenium, Varger and his lawyer from the first movie, the lead detective from the second movie, etc.

But it's also simplistic to suggest that this sort of violence and sexual assault is equally frequently committed by men and women. Women do attack and rape men and that's also horrific. But the statistics the author opens each section of book 2 with - involving men's violence against women - are staggering and mind-numbing. It's simply not true that it's an equal playing field. But when Lisbeth strikes back - at her rapist, at the journalist who raped a teenage trafficking victim - no one was "laughing."

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