The Millennium Trilogy: Why I loved it
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.