I have to say I was both impressed and completely unimpressed by the second installment of the film adaptations of Steig Larsson’s crime fiction trilogy. Impressed because once again Lisbeth Salander proves to be a complex and interesting character with much depth and archetypal value, but unimpressed because there were so many kitschy moments and James Bond ripoffs (see: Lisbeth’s surprise brother who has a rare disorder preventing him from ever feeling pain. Also he is incredibly large and stupid) present in this film. Which is actually great and I really appreciate on many levels, but also strange given the intensity and lack of kitsch the first film had.
Stylistic and plot elements aside, Lisbeth Salander continues adhere to her status as the Patron Saint of abused/sexually assaulted women.
One of the questions I received when I wrote about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was why I thought the books and films were so popular – especially with women – given their intensely violent and misogynistic content?
I think the answer is simple in a sense. Yes – the books and films contain graphic rape, sexual objectification, violence towards women, victimization and misogyny. But they also contain Lisbeth. There are many people who do not realize there could be, and even is, an alternative to a culture that is violent towards women, or a culture where rape is normalized and perpetuated. And the books and films don’t offer an alternative world, but they do offer Lisbeth Salander.
Lisbeth a Tyler Durden for many women. She is a violent, underdog hero and fights against popular stereotypes of not only women but victimized women. She is intelligent, independent, strong both physically and emotionally, and extracts vengeance on those who harm her and other women. She owns her sexuality and sleeps with both men and women. But she, like so many women off-screen, has been the victim of sexual assault and violence at the hands of men. She is small – one of the investigators places her at 5′ tall and 80 lbs. Yet, despite her physical disadvantage, she handles herself well (she is a boxer), and knows how to handle weapons (which means she can handle power, as most weapons serve as phallic symbols – symbols where masculine dominance is vested).
Lisbeth also enacts violence and revenge on oppressive and violent men.
Lisbeth is independent but in exchange for her independence society never has her back. She is accused of crimes she didn’t commit and constantly under pressure from institutional forces (her lawyer guardian from the first film, the police in this film). Perhaps it is because her dominance is threatening – she leaves her mark everywhere she goes.
She first leaves her fingerprints on the gun she finds in Bjurman’s desk, a gun that is used to set her up for murder. She suffers consequences for, literally and figuratively, breaking and entering into a “man’s world” and fighting back. Because she leaves evidence of herself behind on a phallic symbol of power, she becomes a threat and must be stopped. She left her mark on Bjurman himself in the first film – tattooing I am a Sadist, Rapist Pig across his chest. After his death, her mark once again lands her in trouble as it is construed as motive in the triple murder case Lisbeth is falsely accused of. The marks she leaves behind are threatening because they are reminders of her strength and her willingness to pursue her concept of justice to the bittersweet, revenge-filled end.
Even as a child, Lisbeth’s unwavering tendency to fight back against oppressive forces is met only with punishment:
For burning her abusive father with a Molotov cocktail at a young age, she is incarcerated in a mental institution. For filming the rape she suffers in order to gain power over Bjurman, her friends are kidnapped and physically beaten and tortured. For attempting to kill her criminal father, she is shot three times and buried alive.
At the end of the film, when Lisbeth has finally (potentially) mortally wounded her father, Blomkvist arrives to help her after the most horrifying part of facing her father has occurred.
Lisbeth attempted once before to kill her father by use of fire, but he survived to continue to abuse and violate women, and perpetuate acts of violence. For her trouble, Lisbeth was put in a mental institution where she was further abused. Now, her father wants revenge.
Much like Harriet in the first film, Lisbeth is confronted with the chance of killing her own father, and like Harriet, Lisbeth intends to do just that. But Lisbeth’s father instead has Lisbeth’s half-brother dig a grave for her and takes her out back to shoot her like a dog. This parallel hearkens back to the first film and mirrors Harriet’s father and brother’s violence, and the indoctrination of sons into a realm of violence and abuse via their fathers. Lisbeth tries to flee to save her life, but she is shot three times and, presumed dead, buried.
Lisbeth, however, is not dead. She claws her way out of her own grave – a rebirth for a girl now lacking a mother (her mother passes away at the beginning of the film) – and fights her father one last time. This time, she wins and takes his gun (the phallus) in order to attempt to kill her brother. Before she can succeed in killing them both, Blomkvist arrives and summons medical aid and the news that Lisbeth is no longer suspected of three murders.
Lisbeth’s triumph over her father can be seen as a physical fulfillment of Freud’s Penis Envy. Freud theorizes that once a young girl realizes she lacks a penis, she wants one and therefore desires her father’s. Lisbeth literally takes her father’s phallus from him and kills him (the phallus, it should be obvious, is his gun). She also takes up her father’s legacy in the wake of his death – she comes from a violent and abusive upbringing but from a young age sought to subvert and change her circumstances. For many, seeing Lisbeth rise to apparently overcome the vicious blows dealt to her by her father and society at large, is inspiring and cathartic. In this sense, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Lisbeth Salander can be read as feminist in the sense that they tout the idea that a woman can fight back. But – not truly escape. This is problematic as once again the film does not offer solutions; however, simply having a strong female lead infiltrate pop culture on a level where both women and men of varying ages are engaging with the character is fantastic.
(This view can be seen as lenient as there are several feminists who would vehemently disagree with my assessment – however I stand by it. Maybe I’m just as indoctrinated as everyone else into a patriarchal society where violence is the only way to fight violence, but I see Salander as a positive female lead – flaws, mistakes, moral ambiguity and all.)
Although Lisbeth’s relationship with Blomkvist is on the back burner in this installment of the trilogy, it is still a present element. Although Blomkvist appears to be set up as her ‘saviour’ (he is the only character in the film who is strongly behind Lisbeth no matter what – he also respects her independence and knows her strength but is not threatened by it), the film manages to subvert the typical male-protagonist-to-the-rescue scenario. But this is both positive and negative. Although Lisbeth doesn’t rely on Blomkvist to ‘save’ her, he nonetheless attempts to assist her and usually fails, arriving just in time to be too late.
Lisbeth is a martyr in a sense – she is always fighting against society that oppresses, victimizes and wants her to be a certain way. When she adopts masculine “dominance” qualities, she is threatening and the entire system of society moves to “put her in her place”. She is capable of so much, and is constantly over-estimated or under-estimated, but never taken as she is. This could be advantageous in dealing with oppressive forces, as being over- or under-estimated often gives one an advantage because the opponent will be surprised. But she also never truly gets the upper hand. Every time she deals a blow, one is dealt back to her.
And, of course, there is the problem of the violence Lisbeth utilizes. Violence is how the masculine realm perpetuates dominance. We have seen this cycle in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and of course other films such as Fight Club. Lisbeth uses this to her advantage, but it is a struggle to harness this kind of volatile dominance, and even more of a struggle to keep it. The title of the film can be read in relation to this concept as well: Fire is an unpredictable force that can easily overtake and get out of hand. It is deadly, scarring and painful. The title trivializes Lisbeth in a sense – “girl” and “played” both imply a child-like clumsiness and lack of understanding of the magnitude of life in general – and Lisbeth is quite the opposite. She doesn’t so much play with fire as she harnesses it’s power. And she is not simply a girl, she is a mature adult who knows very well what she is doing and how to handle herself. The title reflects, rather, how other male characters view her. Once again, she is grossly underestimated in her ability.
Despite the kitschy moments, The Girl who Played with Fire was a pleasure to watch in that it hit all the right notes of a crime thriller and all the satisfying, cathartic moments that are promised in the genre.