May 31, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

More than a year after its premiere in Sweden, the first film based on the late Stieg Larsson's tremendously successful Millennium Trilogy, has quietly snuck onto screens in western Canada. So quietly, fans practically needed the hacking skills of Lisbeth Salander — the protagonist turned titular character in the international versions of both the first novel and film — to find out the film they had been waiting for was being screened at all.

Roughly seven months after its January 2009 Swedish premiere, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the first of what is now a trilogy of films) had been seen by some six million people worldwide, making it the third most viewed non-English language film in the world at the time. So far, it has been seen by 1.2 million Swedes, 2.8 million Scandinavians in total, and practically as many Frenchmen (to whom it's known as Millénium — Le film) and Spaniards. It's been sold to and is being distributed in some 25 countries worldwide, including a number in which the novels haven't been received quite as enthusiastically.

A tremendous success for the 60 financiers, who'd invested nearly SEK 100 million (≈C$13.4 million) toward the films' production — something of a safe bet given that the three novels have sold more than two million copies in Sweden alone (a country of roughly 9.4 million inhabitants), with the first two becoming the third and fourth most bought books in the world during 2009, only slightly less popular than Stephenie Meyer's Twilight-series. (They've currently sold in excess of 27 million copies worldwide, 3.5 million in the USA alone.)

Being the first film in memory to win both the popular and the critics choice award for best film domestically, The Girl with ... also propelled Noomi Rapace, who portrays hacker Lisbeth Salander, to international stardom; her last international outing being her 1988 debut as a nine year-old extra in Hrafn Gunnlaugsson's Í skugga hrafnsins (Shadow of the Raven). But perhaps more importantly, The Girl with ... represents a tremendous success for contemporary Swedish cinema — a fact which will hopefully help usher in the premiers of other recent, fascinating Swedish films like Flickan (The Girl), Metropia, and Videocracy in North American theatres.

The film's plot is one fans of the series are already familiar with: Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist framed for libel, is employed by the industrial magnate Vanger to ostensibly write a family history. Though it soon transpires the true objective of Blomkvist's assignment is to examine for one last time the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Vanger's niece Harriet in the summer of 1966. Blomkvist makes some headway in traditional journalistic fashion — scouring archives, conducting interviews, re-heating stale leads — but without the skills of the young, socially maladjusted hacker Lisbeth Salander, whom Blomkvist unexpectedly encounters in his path, he hardly would've got very far.

In a particularly interesting scene, which has Salander assembling data from hard copies stored in the Vanger family business archives, the connection between hers and Blomkvist's singular skills — as well as their similarly obsessive characters — is made perfectly explicit. Salander's skills at collecting information, like those of other hackers, are presented in their most basic form: stripped of the hip digital hardware, they're fundamentally a question of piecing together loose crumbs of information carelessly left behind, coaxing unity from seemingly disparate sources.

Superficially meaningless fragments of personal information, reflections of us all in accounts, transactions, logs, have for a long time — long before the advent of the digital era — made it practically impossible to live, to exist, to function on any level of our society without leaving traces behind. Traces an information specialist — a hacker, a skilled journalist, even your friendly neighbourhood librarian — can retrieve, compile, and amplify.

Brought together by their dogged persistence to stitch the "whole truth" together regardless of the cost, insisting "a truth" actually exists, Blomkvist and Salander — as portrayed in the film — manage to simultaneously both be and not be a couple. While the emotional tension between the two characters is maintained, both are allowed to indulge in the kind of freedom (no nagging wives, demanding family, insistent employers) usually reserved for crime-fighting duos made up of single males.

That the title of the film, and the novel it's based on, has been changed from the far more apt Män som hatar kvinnor (lit. "Men Who Hate Women") is perhaps an indication of the differences between Anglo-Saxon (especially North American) and European storytelling. Focusing on a central character may seem natural to an audience frequently exposed to tales in which in which the hapless mass (i.e. the majority of people) are delivered from the brink of oblivion by a "lone ranger", a man — for it is usually a man — guilty of massive fashion faux pas (such as leotards combined with cape), pumped full of some steroid or other, toting a supermassive ego, with a preference for solving problems by throwing his brawn rather than brains in gear.

But by singling out one of the main protagonists, the title draws attention away from the crucial notions Stieg Larsson appeared to advance in his writing; not only as a novelist, but especially as an investigative journalist. In fact, by centering on the individual — as most political discourse tends to do in North America, still enamoured with the inefficient and hollow notions of liberal individualism — it runs counter to the collective concerns Larsson, descended from a long line of real working class heroes, had advocated for his entire life. Expressly, the title change detracts from the complete lack of empathy for fellow human beings that Larsson sought to expose not just among Swedish elites, but among elites in every late-capitalist society.

Among Sweden's unremorseful (and unreformed) upper class Nazis, Larsson found the perfect culprits to illustrate his point. In the first book, and now film, they also happen to be distinctly despicable specimens who not only hate women, but do so with a passion, a zest, a taste for cruelty. Stemming, it seems Larsson argues, from the exaggerated sense of entitlement their powerful positions and — more specifically — their anti-humanist ideologies equipped them with. Which isn't to detract from the import violence against women assumes in Larsson's stories: his villains' barbarism isn't purely politically motivated. But on the whole, this type of violence — against the half of humanity most commonly disenfranchised, abused, and neglected — serves as the most obvious example of the self-serving cynicism of the world's monied elites.

Even more important is Larsson's attempt to address our societies' growing lack of what was once commonly known in Sweden as "civilkurage", literally "civil courage": the ability of the average citizen to actually demonstrate what they believe in by addressing, through their actions, perceived injustices and wrongs regardless of the consequences for themselves. Something as simple as stepping in between the couple fighting next door, or preventing a complete stranger from getting beaten up and mugged on a city bus. Things that shouldn't merely come naturally to engaged, educated, but above all idealistic Communists like Stieg Larsson, but every human being claiming to possess a streak of decency and a minimum of empathy for others.

The civil courage displayed by Larsson's other protagonist, his alter ego Mikael Blomkvist, contrasts with the notion of "neutrality", employed in a manner that helps expose the very notion of "neutrality" as a sham. The verb "hate", so commonly strewn around carelessly nowadays ("I just HATE when they do that!") is not only a very strong but also an active one, suggesting action, an open invitation for the fist that now always seems to hang ready in the air to land on whomever, or whatever, has raised our ire. "Neutrality", on the other hand, suggests a cynical, self-serving indifference. Which, though indisputably saves one from personally ending up in trouble, also by default — by virtue of its innate passivity — places one in the same camp as whoever is the strongest, whoever is winning. See someone being beaten up, avoid stepping in, and you may as well have contributed to the beating.

The fact that you didn't personally land any blows is a ruse, wrought forth only to protect your own conscience. You didn't beat the victim up — but you didn't prevent them from being beaten up either, when you likely could've. Nor did you prevent the victim from coming to as much harm as they did, had you only mustered enough courage to step in. It doesn't matter if you strongly believe in a society were people have the right to not get beaten up, if you continually allow beatings to be administered around you. You may as well try to get in some blows yourself. This essential insight into a crucial facet of empathy, is what Larsson seemed to suggest had been bred out of entire generations of certain types of people. They're indifferent not only to women's suffering, but everyone's.

The Nazi past Larsson invokes is an actable target precisely because Sweden currently faces problems in part created by the nation never properly dealing with its "neutral" stance during the Second World War, its extensive dalliance with Nazism, and the fact that it was the cradle for the state-sponsored pseudo-science dubbed "racial biology". Not directly involved in the war, not officially backing any combatant, the Swedish state officially maintained its indifference, while it and some of its most prominent citizens made considerably amounts of money trading with — in particular — Germany. Making the distinction between "neutrality" and "collaboration" practically negligible in hindsight.

What makes a discussion of Sweden's wartime manoeuvring even more difficult, is the insight — even among the most idealistic humanists — that it was precisely this self-serving indifference that left Sweden practically unscathed when it could easily have been overrun, occupied, and obliterated by any of the conflict's major powers, and as a result better positioned to create an enviable welfare-state for all than most other European states. Its infrastructure largely intact, its industry running white-hot, having profited form catering to all sides of the conflict, poised to provide and develop whatever goods and services Europe needed to rebuild: the fruits of past indifference enjoyed by practically all Swedes since. And envied by many abroad.

Larsson specifically exposes "neutrality" through the collaboration among the various members of the Vanger family (who to those knowledgable in Swedish affairs, seem an only thinly disguised incarnation of the Wallenbergs), linking their political fascism with physical, sexualised brutality. Larsson raises a question similar to the one raised by Danish film director Lars von Trier in his 1991 drama Europa, if in fact the very act of non-intervention, of not taking sides, of indifference ultimately represents more reprehensible choice than choosing the "wrong" side. This, as well as other aspects of Larsson's story are detracted from by the title change, pandering to an audience used to focus solely on "the hero" rather than "the heroics". (Curiously, in Germany the title of the first book and film of the Millennium Trilogy was given as Verblendung, referring to a state of mind in which one's completely blinkered by a twisted belief system, fanaticism, or prejudice.)

It's of course entirely possible that non-Anglo audiences are simply more accustomed to writers holding up mirrors which allow their fellow citizens to examine themselves, and the societies they inhabit. To North Americans in particular, "evil" isn't merely a term for the capacity to perform unspeakable acts of cruelty we all possess as human beings, but a specific entity, a quality that more often than not is believed to reside outside their own, immediate society. An assumption easy to make, especially when any homegrown "evil" — be it in the individual home or the community at large — is yet to be accounted for.

Larsson's villains aren't cave men, quite the opposite: they're prosperous, educated, presumably rational individuals. Representatives of society's elite, not in the least unique to Sweden, so far removed from the lives of ordinary citizens that they hold nothing but contempt for them. A contempt derived from the lingering suspicion that that they're besieged; victimised by a "nanny state" established to pander to those who only seek "handouts", which aims to wrest control of the world's finances and politics. In other words, an elite suffering under the delusion that a conspiracy of "inferiors" is attempting to take the power and privileges they consider their birthright away from them.

However, as far as the film adaptation is concerned, the translation of the title in some parts of the world may be its only true problem. Granted, as is often the case with film adaptations of (particularly popular) books, the changes to plot, timelines, and characters may grate on the hardcore fans, no matter how minor. Yet Danish writers Nikolaj Arcel's and Rasmus Heisterberg's distillation of the 566-page novel into a two and a half hour film, which manages to sustain its pace throughout, is quite impressive — especially given the amount of overwrought dramas lately meandering along on cinema screens.

Some of the changes may stem from the initial decision to turn the first part of the trilogy into a theatrical feature, while turning the remaining two into television films. A decision which also impacted the budgets and production quality of the two remaining parts, directed by Daniel Alfredsson, who served as second unit director on The Girl with.... (Interestingly, Alfredsson's style isn't entirely dissimilar to that of his brother Tomas, who's also recently reaped international success with his adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's 2004 debut novel Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In).) Ultimately the decision to let The Girl with ... be helmed by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, experienced with several television thrillers and crime dramas, likely allowed the Swedish particulars of the story to be advantageously approached form an outsiders point of view.

Instead of concentrating on getting all the specific details just so, Oplev instead has focused on bringing out the essential elements of the story. Which isn't to say that the film lacks in specifically Swedish scenography or in some manner misrepresents its setting. (The fact that actual television journalists Alexandra Pascalidou and Lisbeth Åkerman appear as themselves, albeit uncredited, not only discloses how much of an "in house" production this really is, but also enhance the realism.)

As the action decamps Stockholm for decidedly more rural locales held in the solid grip of winter, the lighting of master cinematographer Jens Fischer turns a suitable hue of chilly blue, while the more opulent domiciles feature interiors cluttered with the mahogany and Josef Frank designs so beloved by the Swedish upper class. Many of the exteriors were shot around the locality of Gnesta, and Södertuna castle in particular, leaving some of the locals hoping the international success of the film will make their community as famous as the Twilight-series has made Tuscan Volterra.

Michael Nyqvist may not "own" the character of Mikael Blomkvist in the same manner that Noomi Rapace "is" Lisbeth Salander — the black-clad, tattooed, pierced heart of the Millennium Trilogy — but he nevertheless conjures forth what may well be the film's only placid, never mind sympathetic, male character. More surprising, to those who only recall him from his sprightly roles in international films of the late 1960s and the 1970s, Sven-Bertil Taube emerges as a nestor of Swedish drama, elegantly infusing life into his role as the aging, ailing (and, perhaps, just a tad queer) magnate. Peter Andersson also manages to turn the exquisitely despicable lawyer Nils Bjurman into a truly unpleasant character. (Coincidentally, Andersson also appeared in a 1996 adaptation of Astrid Lindgren's Kalle Blomkvist-stories, the boy detective from whom this film's Mikael Blomkvist derives his derisive nickname.)

But it's Peter Haber who turns out the a performance every bit as compelling as Rapace's, though his has largely gone unremarked upon by North American critics. Previously mostly known for portraying the sympathetic police inspector Beck, in a series of television films based on the renown novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (who established the template of the police procedural crime novel as a means of social commentary with their series), Haber's cold-blooded psychopath, with a remarkable penchant for deliberately applied suffering, is delivered without an ounce of overstatement and oodles of icy insensitivity. Though the film concentrates more on the violence and less on the romance than the novel it's based on, shedding some of the subplots (including much of Mikael Blomkvist's womanising), it retains enough of Stieg Larsson's own engaging voice (and idealism); crucially reviving a genre in which violence — especially towards women — is often equated with entertainment.

Additional research by Tim Nieguth.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post about a movie I had blown off and now want to see. This book with its ersatz American title and sensational cover art is everywhere but so far I've managed to tune it out. When somebody told me they read it in their book club I inwardly groaned.
    But now knowing the actual title, Men who Hate Women and more about Stieg Larsson I am anxious to see the film if not read the book(s).



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