Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen
Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 158 min.
Verdict: A case could be made that this is Mr. Fincher’s most ambitious film.
Genre: Thriller, Drama
(Note: If you haven’t seen the Swedish film, or haven’t read the books, there might be some spoilers here. In fact, there are. So yeah, be warned. I would suggest watching the film and maybe then returning.)
It’s only right that Mr. Fincher stages the narrative’s most significant moment around a door, subtly hinting at the dynamics at play here in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I am essentially a monkey when it comes to using any editing software, not that I have ventured beyond Windows Moviemaker, and I would be much obliged if someone were to make something of a video review that concentrates around the doors here. Or the windows and the panes. Or the walls. Maybe even the tables. Or maybe all of them. I have a hunch that little video might very well capture the essence of Mr. Fincher’s film. There is some remarkable leverage drawn from these spatial dividers almost tempting me to go for my usual framegrab-play. Michel Blomkvist (Mr. Craig) knocks on Lisbeth Salander’s door (Ms. Mara), and the little girl is startled. She cautiously, and maybe even nervously, opens it, just a wee bit, and Michel, in a display of a behavior that is at once both paternal (patronizing) and masculine (self-righteous), pulls the door open wide and walks in. Little Lisbeth, who has had to put up with men invading her space (every which way), is startled and jumps back. For a movie that has been adapted from a book that was titled The Men Who Hate Women (a little harsh, I’ve to say), this pivotal moment, where the multiple narratives join each other, just about says everything. I’m not sure if my categorization of Michel’s behavior is bang on, but dear reader, I hope you get the drift. And he’s the “clean” guy.
Now, that’s a point for later. What draws our attention upfront is the amount of action that is staged around doors and windows, with characters walking in and walking out or resting on the jambs, or using the separation as a means of protecting their privacy. Michel walks out of a building only to walk into a horde of reporters, walks away from them, walks into a café only to find the news channel flashing his legal problems, and he walks out, and walks into his office only to find all the news reporters staring at him. We think this guy’s privacy is more or less screwed, and just about the time Michel expresses his desire to go home and crawl under the duvet for a week the film quite amusingly intercuts to Dirch Frode examining a file containing a detailed background check on Michel done by Lisbeth Salander (Ms. Mara), who, in her turn, knows a whole lot more than what’s inside the report. I mean, like bank statements and sexual inclinations. So yeah, the invasion of Michel’s privacy is complete, and barely nine minutes into the narrative Mr. Fincher quite neatly sets up not merely the dominant theme but what would be the dominant technique to help read it. And he uses this moment, through Lisbeth’s coiled body (there’s some intercutting here as well, between her walk to the office and the conference room waiting for her), and through orienting the composition around her and allowing her the privilege to sketch her own private space, to establish her and her privacy, which I guess is pretty wicked. I mean, people sitting across long tables protecting themselves over the corpse of another man’s privacy does make you chuckle, no?
Mr. Fincher does have a lot on his plate to narrate, and it pays to be precise and economic drawing upon so many elements – textual, sub-textual, and extra-textual – and depositing them layer by layer making a film so immense I still have no idea how to structure my piece here. I’m like an ant chewing the bark of a tree, or something to that effect. So what I would do is continue in this direction, maybe for a paragraph or two, who knows maybe even more, and see if it can lead me inside. Michel, running away from his legal problems in
finds some sort of reprieve in the case of an old man’s murdered granddaughter.
The old man is Henrik Vanger (Mr. Plummer), and the granddaughter was Harriet
(Ms. Moa Garpendal), and in one brilliant crosscut that also serves as Soviet
montage, Mr. Fincher links Lisbeth leaving and closing the door behind and
Harriet sitting under the sun who turns and looks at us, linking not merely the
two little girls but probably the past and the present. I suspect, the latter
linkage finds a lot more weight in Mr. Stieg Larsson’s novels (I haven’t read
them), considering he was so concerned about Right Wing extremism in Swedish
society. As for Mr. Fincher, he takes these concerns as a given, and builds his
film upon them. Now back to Harriet and Lisbeth, and look at them below and
tell me they don’t resemble, especially with their missing eyebrows. Stockholm
We shall come back to this link-up later, but for now, let us stick with Michel. He accepts Henrik’s proposal to look into the mystery and try and solve it, but not before Henrik promising him to give some sort of smoking gun on billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström (Mr. Ulf Friberg), the guy who has caused his recent legal misfortunes. Michel takes some time away from his magazine, leaving it and its editor-in-chief Erika Berger (Ms. Robin Wright) to fight Wennerström alone, and a certain tension is created here. Not merely the gender thing – Erika and Michel are extra-marital lovers – but the nagging thought that the present is being ignored to salivate over the past, and it assumes its full form during the film’s bleakest hour – while Lisbeth is being brutally raped by her legal guardian provided by the state, we cut to Michel mulling over the information about Harriet and listening to an iPod. I mean, yeah I know, what I’m saying probably doesn’t make much sense, but the tension here is more of a moral argument, a theoretical/ cinematic exercise that primarily causes uneasiness because of this narrative world, a world where crosscuts (agent of irony) are possible, and where the very same crosscutting provides us the necessary comfort that Lisbeth is on her way to save him when Michel is the one hanging by his neck trying to make the most of his final breaths. And maybe, just maybe, a fleeting shot of the cat wanting to get inside and escape from the chilling cold, and Michel too busy in the past to let it in, is some sort of argument in my favor. Never mind.
But then, that’s by no means the only thing happening during that moment. For the first time within the film, the accessibility of technology to solve a problem comes to the fore. Up until then Michel is just another helpless agent in Mr. Fincher’s canon, like Mills or
or Toschi or Mulanax or Graysmith,
rummaging through diaries and police files, running around chewing the endless
bark while having only the faintest of ideas, much like me. And once again, and
contrary to the Swedish film where Lisbeth’s revenge on her rapist mostly
serves the purpose of, well, contextual gratification, Mr. Fincher causes an
almost glorious crosscut from Lisbeth’s tattoo on her guardian, to Michel meeting
his daughter Pernilla (Ms. Josefin Asplund), and in a way tell us and Michel about
the nature of the mystery that’s being dealt with here. And also, somewhere
behind, hints at an uncomfortable thought, linking the two little girls –
Pernilla and Lisbeth – that makes the sex between Michel and Lisbeth that much
weirder. As opposed to the adolescent nature of the Swedish film, where Ms.
Noomi Rapace’s was something of a superwoman, Mr. Fincher and Ms. Mara render
the character a tender coconut, a vulnerable little creature in the disguise of
a punk, sort of like the grown-up version of Mathilda (Leon). And in case I haven’t yet made it obvious, there’s a flavor
of duality in the proceedings – Lisbeth and Michel, Lisbeth and Harriet,
Lisbeth and Pernilla, Martin and Gottfried, Martin and Lisbeth’s father, the
past and the present. Somerset
And then, the most important of all – the exterior and the interior, spaces which are no way limited to the four walls. Henrik takes Michel out in the chilling snow and gives him a lowdown on who lives where on the island, which mostly contains meaningless information but primarily serves to highlight how almost all of the characters within the film are essentially alone. Peering through with those doors and windows, and most importantly crosscutting with the aid of the exterior shots of the various residential places here (causing a smooth transition and lending some serious thematic weight) , Mr. Fincher almost sort of defines his characters through their places, and the size and nature of their “private chambers”.
We meet Henrik Vanger, and in spite of his huge mansion, the old man belongs to that dark room where those flowers hang, and he lets Michel in.
We meet Inspector Morell, and Mr. Fincher takes great care in choreographing the conversation so as to frame him in his private space when he describes a policeman’s obsession with a “missing-girl case” (another example of self-righteous behavior in a patriarchal society?).
We meet the cops, and they lead Lisbeth into separate rooms to give the detailed information she seeks.
We meet Anita in her office, although we’re never let inside her home. In a way, even her exterior is guarded.
And the woman in the picture, who pulls the honeymoon album from a separate room.
Yeah, enough with these frame-grab shenanigans. The thing is, there’s Lisbeth, and there’s Henrik, and there’re all those family members living alone behind those stonewalls, protecting their lives, much like us. Right from Harald (who, late in the film, leads Michel into his room) to Cecilia to Inspector Morell to Gunnar to Anita to the cat. Everybody in here seems to have their own private chambers, and that these people allow us access is a reflection of both the humanity at the heart of the film and its political stance. In return, Mr. Fincher not once crosses the boundary, always respecting the person’s private space (his cinema is probably the opposite of voyeurism). There’s Martin with his glass walls, the obvious plot decoy, who supports the presence of the protagonist/detective the most, who has a home seemingly built out of glass as if he has nothing to hide, but which is built like an intricate maze having no apparent orientation (especially when Michel sneaks into it), and whose chilly interiors bring to mind Patrick Bateman’s abode, and whose private chamber situated “vertically” rather than horizontally, is not a cliché but a symbolic device, suggestive of whatever the novel’s title wanted to convey. That soft sound of the wind, during the dinner conversation with Martin and his lover, and the little confusion of its source is a lovely little touch, both as a piece of clue and as an indication of the architecture.
Which brings us to the issue of the big lurid (supposedly) scene, and the absolute invasion of Lisbeth’s private space. Trevor Link, in a rather wonderful essay here, interprets the film as salvation of digital cinema, a stance I might want to argue against, considering that digital cinema itself involves making meaning out of meaningless binaries, which in turn makes it the savior. But Trevor’s argument sure does contain some weight in a Fincher film, considering he passes montage as packets of data, which together create the implied meaning. Especially in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where Lisbeth wanting to track down possible victims from the police files comes across this information. You might want to read the where-clause of the SQL query above (‘rape’, ‘decapitation’ etc.), and the report column of the result set.
It is from this flat meaninglessness that the film hopes to escape from, a film where the damning evidence is the most primary weapon, and here, in the Information Age, digital technology sort of becomes the Deus Ex Machina. She walks (hacks) into Bjurman’s private chamber wanting to implicate him using digital means, not anticipating the ensuing behavior at all. Lisbeth thus becomes the film’s principal agent (she would later help in incriminating the film’s other villains as well), the central symbolic figure representing both technology and innocence within the film, and her rape doesn’t merely serve as a cue for what’s to come, but also as symbolic of the actions committed by its sexual predators.
Allow me to explain.
Mr. Fincher, curiously, follows (not immediately) the rape scene with a sequence of Erika in Michel’s cottage, walking into the bedroom while he’s sitting over the sofa mulling over the Vangers’ decision to invest in his troubled magazine, and she calls him to bed, her silhouette in his room.
Now look, how the film both sets up the film’s primary dramatic thread as manifested by this space, and plays with it. Here’s Lisbeth and Michel on their opening night (of the investigation) together.
And here’s them later on, Lisbeth practically forcing herself upon him, and Michel in turn grabbing the opportunity with at least his left hand. Here’s a man who is in an extra-marital affair that has wrecked his marriage, and is now enjoying this supposed one-night stand after a tryst with danger, much like James Bond (famously described as a sexist misogynist dinosaur).
What’s happening here? Is Mr. Fincher merely replicating the gender-blah from the novel/Swedish-film? Not really. On the contrary, throughout the film he is establishing Lisbeth’s child-like innocence in an increasingly grey-ish world. When her first guardian Holger Palmgren suffers a stroke and is hospitalized, she sits outside like a faithful dog. Her anorexic withdrawn body language suggests she is perennially on the defensive, and Michel’s apparent “cleanliness” is a virtue she is easily attracted towards and falls for. His presence causes her to hope, look forward to Christmas, and maybe even smile and open up a little bit. He, in his turn, exhibits the sort of behavior described in the opening paragraph, explicitly conveyed in a moment where he runs his arm around Lisbeth to access the keyboard. She mistakes his one-night stand for perennial love, and when the film’s final moment finds her little hope blown to pieces, it is a heartbreaking loss of innocence. In many ways, Lisbeth’s equation with Michel represents what Stephen Meyers’ with Mike Morris was misunderstood to be. Oh yeah, I believe Michel and Mike are riding the same boat, although Michel is merely gray – a probable victim of his gender and not actively unscrupulous.So yeah, as opposed to general descriptions of Mr. Fincher’s film being impassive, or even lurid, it is extremely sensitive and tender, and respectful. In this day and age of Wikileaks and News International Phone Hacking scandal and DSK, it identifies with Lisbeth Salander, salvaging her character from the juvenile blandness of the Swedish film and making her vulnerability so palpable we know her better than anybody within the film. And as she rides away disappearing into the city, we cannot help but wonder about the wilderness surrounding the film, the wilderness with which Mr. Fincher opens the narrative, the geographical expanse where a girl can be maimed and buried, and where Lisbeth can throw her wig without worrying about somebody finding it. Is that a reference to the vast expanse of information which Toschi and Graysmith lost themselves in? The wilderness of the past surrounding the present? Sometimes William Faulkner's "The past is never dead, it's not even past" feels so true. The Bible might be scanned and made an e-Book, or the photos could be scanned and zoomed in to extract the last pixel, but then there still remains a hell of a lot to our world that lives beyond 1s and 0s.