Last year, I published a review of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; I also published a defense of remakes. As my review of Män som hatar kvinnor made clear, I did not like the original film; as my discussion of remakes made clear, I have nothing against remakes in principle. My fear was that David Fincher’s remake would essentially be beneath his talent, which would make it pointless primarily in the sense that an already-odious story was bequeathed an unearned aura of respectability by an artist that should, by now, have developed the sense to do better things with his time. Since initially publishing those thoughts back in March 2011, another factor developed that I had not anticipated.
My review of Män som hatar kvinnor has been one of the most consistent hit collectors on my blog. I’m grateful for the traffic. But I’m torn between amusement and horror. You see, a majority of the search terms that pull up my blog are Google searches for the rape scene. I’m amused by the fact that people specifically looking for images or videos of a vicious anal rape are redirected to a blog whose subtitle is “The place where Christianity and film meet for coffee.” I’m horrified by the fact that most of the people who find my review of the film are specifically looking for the rape scene.
This is why I’m going to spend what may seem like a frankly creepy amount of time talking about that aspect of the film: because the ethics of representing sexual violence on film ought to be considered, given that there’s evidently a sizable audience that craves it.
Let’s take a moment, first, to pay lip service to David Fincher as a craftsman. Jim Emerson (one of the truly indispensable elocutioners of cinematic craft) appreciated the film’s sound design and the internal logic of shot compositions and how they keyed into the film’s editing rhythms. Since Emerson’s discussion of the editing was tied primarily to an intricately-structured flashback sequence, and since he chose that sequence because it was highlighted in another online source, I think it presents a slightly skewed vision of how tightly the movie is actually crafted. Don’t get me wrong. The sequence Emerson discusses is, in fact, one of the highlights of the film (even though the golden-tinting of The Past is a trope I’d like to see go the way of “Freedom Fries” as a potato strip nomenclature). Upon the whole, however, the film suffers quite a bit from the ponderous, inartful nature of the screenplay.
A contrasting sequence that, in theory, features an intricate cross-cutting of personal breakthroughs for the two protagonists actually provides a negative contrast with the flashback Emerson cites. As Lisbeth exacts revenge upon her rapist, Mikael simultaneously strings together the sequence of photographs that show Harriet at the parade looking at someone across the street. In my post on the first film, I specifically cited the photograph sequence as an example of something that film got right. Here, it barely registers. An argument could be made (and it probably has been) that by cross-cutting Lisbeth’s vengeance with Mikael’s investigatory triumph, we are getting an insight into what makes them both tick; into what makes them such a great pair. Both are relentless, intelligent seekers of justice. And I’m sure that Mikael felt quite good about having pieced together that clue with the sequence of photographs. Yet spliced with a scene in which a waif kicks a huge dildo up the ass of a naked, hairy fat dude who’s strapped to the floor… well, it loses a bit of its visceral punch by contrast.
Not to mention that the physical and visual continuities of each scene are rendered more jagged — thus sabotaging momentum — by the technique. I don’t know if this sequence was written that way, or if it was Fincher’s own stroke of misguided inspiration. What’s more, because the content of the revenge scene is so pungent, it’s hard to recall the specifics of framing, sound, and color after only one viewing. It’s my recollection that the harsh glare on the wood-paneled bedroom in Bjurman’s bedroom is no match for the bluish tint of Mikael’s cottage. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m not sure at what time of day these events are taking place. Did Lisbeth attack her warden at night? Did Mikael string those photos together in the afternoon? It’s my own failure that I can’t recall these details, but I still posit that a filmmaker so attuned to craft might have foreseen that such a daring attempt at crosscutting might fail in precisely this way. It disrupts the aural and visual continuity that the editors took pains to preserve in the flashback sequence. Is it a good aesthetic decision to fragment and neuter the respective moments of triumph of the two protagonists? My vote is “no.”
More troubling is just how little Fincher can do to inject a sense of urgency into the many, many scenes of expository dialogue. This is — sexual violence and Nazisploitation notwithstanding — a murder mystery, and murder mysteries, as a rule, are dominated by a succession of scenes in which the detective gathers clues by interviewing witnesses and potential suspects. Unfortunately, Mikael is a rather bland character; apart from being ruggedly handsome (due more to the fortuitous casting of Daniel Craig than innate character traits) and exhibiting the habit of dangling his reading glasses from his ear, he blends into the background of virtually every scene he’s in, whether it’s a sitting room, a snow-covered island, or a serial killer’s torture chamber. And since the narrative structure unwisely keeps its protagonists separated for half the film, the one character with the potential to arrest your attention — Lisbeth — is mostly relegated to dialogue-free sequences of slinking through corridors, getting equipment from her hacker friends, and getting raped by her social worker. She, too, tends to blend into the background, but you get the sense that it’s more because she’s a creature of this horrible, twisted world.
At any rate, the elegant compositions — tributes to Sven Nykvist though they may be — did not, for me, elevate the mundane, expository dialogue. The brightest spots in the film, apart from Rooney Mara, are veteran character actors like Christopher Plummer and Stellan Skarsgard, who supply the seedy charm. Even the man who plays Lisbeth’s despicable rapist, Yorick van Wageningen, manages to give a nuanced performance in a role that virtually guarantees him awkward cocktail party conversations for the next two years.
The most significant advantage this film has over its predecessor (beyond Fincher clearly being a better filmmaker than Niels Arden Oplev) is its treatment of Lisbeth. No, not in the sense that she’s venally subjected to sexual humiliation in order for the film to bolster its “edginess.” Rather, it’s the combination of a slightly better rendering of the character in the script stage and a slightly less self-consciously “iconic” portrayal by Mara. Noomi Rapace was all defiant swagger, with her brief moments of vulnerability mostly relegated to physical confrontations in which she was outmatched. It was a strong performance, and it was clearly calculated to convey the internal anger and power of will that held a damaged character like Lisbeth together; more than that, it was calculated to balance out the violence to which she was subjected. “Look how strong she is: she can take it!” The U.S. remake tries a slightly different approach. Mara’s Lisbeth doesn’t swagger; she stalks along, shoulders hunched, drawing as little attention to herself as possible in terms of movement. Her gaze is steady and clear, but it gives the impression of deadness, rather than coldness; not that she’s unintelligent or unaware, but that she’s detached on a fundamental level. That detachment in the original took the form of a domineering persona; in the remake, it takes the form of an apparent withdrawal — even though, in fact, Lisbeth is still a warrior.
Reconceptualizing the basic tenor of the character does much to justify the remake. More importantly, Mara’s Lisbeth is given an genuine emotional arc. Whereas the Swedish film emphasized Lisbeth’s independence and general badassery, she was essentially the same person at the end of the film as at the beginning, save that she now had a sorta-kinda-maybe friend in Mikael. When she screws over the corporate douchebag that landed Mikael in jail in the original, it was partly to help him, but she also helped herself. In the remake, she pulls the same stunt, but not with the apparent aim of getting a little for herself. The sequence in Fincher’s film ends with her returning to Stockholm and buying a gift for Mikael, only to throw it in the trash when she realizes that he’s still hung up on his fellow editor at Millennium. For Mara’s Lisbeth, there is independence and general badassery, but she also forges a deeper emotional connection with Mikael; she takes a tentative step out of the shell she’s built around herself, and it’s genuinely sad when her fragile heart is broken. For all the horrible things visited upon her in the film, watching her drive out of sight into the inky streets is a trenchant moment, because there was a real investment there that simply did not exist in the original film.
Ultimately, I think it’s this aspect of the film that, for me, mitigates the tastelessness of the unnecessary rape scenes. Though Lisbeth as a construct can’t help but be an avatar for the kind of vigilante fantasies the first film so artlessly exploited, it’s clear that Fincher and Mara worked very hard to give her an identity apart from her function in the labyrinthine plot. That means, in retrospect, that the rape scenes weren’t in there exclusively for the sake of titillating those who get off on such things; they were shocking depictions of a character with severe vulnerabilities being brought low for no good reason. That makes Lisbeth’s violation something truly sad — it builds empathy, though only after the entire film has been endured — as opposed to something used as a pandering, mean-spirited trick to manipulate the audience and reduce Lisbeth to a mere icon of postfeminist vengeance.
Was the violence necessary to the plot or character development? No. But at least the film treated Lisbeth as a real character. An argument could be made that this only exacerbates the problem. Frankly, the aesthetics of the scene are even more problematic than the first film, but in a different way. Oplev filmed the rape in a shock-and-awe manner (exploitative, but thoughtless), whereas Fincher relied more on creeping dread, and (disturbingly) reveling in the power Bjurman asserts for himself, which suggests a more thoughtful approach. Ethically, I think that’s a bit more troublesome, especially since in terms of power dynamics, Lisbeth’s revenge is undermined by Fincher’s technique.
As Emerson has demonstrated in his analyses of The Social Network, there are likely to be subtleties laced throughout the film that could be detected and considered upon further viewing, but since I don’t really care for the story, those minor moments of brilliance will likely not add up to a rewarding experience for me. (A second viewing is highly unlikely.) For others, this might not be the case. Fincher’s Demme-like fascination with the perverse, a la Silence of the Lambs, is balanced by his careful attention to character. While his ace editing team can’t quite massage the kinks out of the unwieldy story structure, that dedication to character development does retrospectively fold Lisbeth’s violations into the fabric of the film in a way the original never did.
In terms of the dynamics of audience response, I’m not qualified to speculate on deeper levels of meaning. Once again, I think I’m less disturbed by the actual film than I am by the voracious appetite its audience has for its most exploitative elements. I’m loathe to hold a ravenous pack of ghouls against a decently-constructed film just because there are elements that pander to that demographic, yet I can’t help thinking that such an expert cinematic gamesman like Fincher might have found a way to subvert their expectations. This is only my a priori expectation, of course: yet another thing I can’t intellectually justify holding against the film. But it still bothers me. And I’m sure it will bother me more once I start getting hits for “Rooney Mara rape scene.” ☕