To treat myself when I moved to a new city late last year, I bought something most people in the country I live in have had for years* – a big flat screen television and DVD player. Television watching is not my forte and I do it very seldom – but films via DVD, yes indeedy-roony.
DVDs have the virtues of being watchable at home, anytime you like, and being able to be watched as many times as you like. Despite having around 100 DVDs, most of them lie idle in their cases…watched once and then cast aside, or (so far) not at all, waiting for the moment I am in the mood for, say, Crash, or Secret LIfe of Bees. I have a problem with American films similar but not identical to my problem with television.
Some films, however, I watch repeatedly and recently two of these have grabbed my attention despite their (to me) obvious weaknesses: Parts 2 and 3 of The Millennium Trilogy based on the novels by Stieg Larsson,
Millennium swept the world as a sequence of novels** and the films managed to get Swedish cinema into Hollywood-style multiscreen chains. The first and most famous, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is very well made but lack of realism at the centre of the plot spoils it for me even more than the outlandishness of the plots in the second and third, so that’s saying something.
Ironically, the first was the only one originally made for the big screen. The other two, with another director but the same two leads, were headed for Swedish television as a series when Dragon Tattoo was a surprise global smash. The sequels were edited for the cinema release and joined in the fun.
The second and third are really one story, while the first was more or less a story in itself. All suffer from plot fever – really unbelievable storylines – heated badly, using coincidence to drive things along. Sometimes coincidence is vital for a plot to really work in a novel or film. But it is well overcooked here.
In “filmic” terms the trilogy is well made and the last two, despite extremely patchy editing and far from accurate subtitles, are better than the first. What draws me back to them, however, are the strong performances and characters ot the two leads, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the punk genius hacker and martial arts expert Lisbeth Salander, played respectively by Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace. Though in the first they interact a great deal, in the second and third they rarely see each other, and the dramatic tension that results is part of what makes the films so watchable.
The novels and the films have spawned cults. Websites are devoted to them – to the plots, the characters, the author…one I looked at proudly calls itself “the greatest Stieg Larsson fan site”.
A large part of the attraction of Millennium lies in the character of Lisbeth Salander, though why this should be so is not entirely clear – the punk tech geek martial arts supremo is far from the first kick-ass genius heroine in film, though her bisexuality may add something to the genre type.
What seems to me to have made for the success of the films is fine acting along with the graphic depiction of the rape of Lisbeth by her guardian, a rape that is gone over again and again – via her recording and in her mind.
Yet there is more. The relationship of Mikael Blomkvist and LIsbeth Salander is underlined repeatedly throughout the last two parts: “you really care about her, don’t you?” asks his sister Annika, a lawyer about to agree to take her case. Blomkvist looks away, then down, then mumbles, “Yes.”, just as he mumbled “yes” to police detective Bublanski in part two. Yes it is love – over and above or past his relationship with fellow journalist Erika Berger, who frequently asks probing questions of him about the relationship. But yes also it is guilt, and debt: Salander saved his life in the first part, and then his career…he owes her.
How much this is clear to the rest of the world is not made clear in the films, and when after Lisbeth’s release Annika says getting her off was all Mikael’s doing, Lisbeth answers, “Yeah, but…” since a hacker buddy provided the key evidence, and since Mikael is also in her debt. When they finally meet again, right at the end, the ambiguous tension between them is not resolved and a viewer could take their future relationship in any of a number of ways, starting from none.
Larsson apparently planned a ten-part series before his death, and I don’t know if he had it all worked out or not.
In any case it seems to me that the films succeed because of the principals’ relationship, in spite of the increasing silliness of the plot, but that the portrayal of the relationship is vital: that the actors do such a fine job. There are many occasions when they could have spoiled things by overacting but the restrained and often monosyllabic low-key of the approach makes it work.
We love them because they are outsiders, battling against the world, and it is perhaps no surprise that the two are outsiders in real life, as a probe of Wiki will show.
The outsider as hero has a long tradition in western culture and indeed in the culture of the Western as given to us by Hollywood, and latterly of superheros as given to us (apparently) via vulnerable camouflaged nerds like Spiderman.
While the plot sees Blomkvist the driving force in freeing Salander, in the relationship it is Salander who is dominant, and, like a Western hero as played often by John Wayne, ultimately unreachable. It is she who gets Blomkvist off the hook after a prison sentence, she who saves his life as he is about to be murdered by a serial killer, she who does not flinch watching same go up in flames. It turns out to be she who tries to rescue her mother from an abusive father, she who provides the information to Blomkvist to enable him to destroy her persecutors: it is her connection with the hacker “Plague”, her ability at internet use and hacking, her tough-woman martial arts and electronic gizmo skills that turn up the basic information needed…Finally it is Lisbeth who is responsible for the death of her murderous half-brother and arranges the capture of the bikie gang complicit in her father’s sex trafficking and drug-running.
When Mikael turns up to tell her this latest news (of what she has done), their awkward meeting drags out words of thanks from Lisbeth, but an unspoken expression of puppy love from Mikael Blomkvist. Woman has come to rule.***
It is not that the good men in the trilogy are incompetent. They are not – within their scope, they are very able. It is that with one significant exception, without the guiding lights of the women concerned – Lisbeth Salander, Monika Figueroa, Annika Gianini – the men are lost. They are second fiddles, and they are good precisely because they are willing second fiddles.
That exception is Erika Berger, Mikael Blonkvist’s partner in love and in profession. She shows herself a woman of the old school, an era taking an unfortunately all too extended leave from even the most progressive of our societies. She is the one targetted by conspirators, who chooses to back down, who calls Blomkvist selfish for persisting and who “realises her error” when everything works out. It is a contrast that is made plain elsewhere – the policewoman murdered by Salander’s half-brother Niedermann looks to her male partner instead of focusing on her enemy, and is killed for her concern.
Lisbeth Salander knew how to do it.
Larsson’s thematic weakness, it seems to me, is that none of his women is evil. Others may consider it a weakness of my books that women – and sometimes gay men – are not seldom the “bad girls” or guys in opposition to (typically) heroic women.. This is deliberate on my part – heroes who cannot be villains are diminished in their humanity, and thereby their heroics. Evil is a choice for anyone, and in literature as in life, to be fully human means to have the possibility of evil and reject it.
Thanks for reading.
* It seems I am one of the last people in New Zealand to get these, which I have seen in beneficiaries’ homes. A friend saw my screen and laughed at its mere 32 inch size. **I have compared the synopses with the film to write this post. ***Larsson can be credited with feeling the zeitgeist and portraying successfully the kind of thriller I write, obviously better than I have managed so far. See my post Toiling with Troilus. I have deliberately chosen not to read Larsson’s books but have now watched the second and third parts many times, trying to discover their dynamic secrets. Recently I watched Noomi Rapace’s next film, Beyond: it is not actually. She has since moved on from her past life and springboarded from the Lisbeth Salander role into Hollywood style action thrillers that have apparently been well-received, an outsider who has become an insider: the future as now.