Oscarbation: The Girl with the Dragon Taboo

01/20/2012 8:58 AM |

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Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are befriending mysterious lesbians. This week they discuss the portrayal of rape and other acts of sexual violence in relation to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

SUTTON:
Hey, Henry, do you think that, in spite of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s likely Oscar snubbing save a few secondary and tertiary noms (right?) its opening credits could be eligible for a Best Animated Short Oscar? Could we just talk about those three minutes of gloomy, gooey eyegasmic glory for the next thousand words? No? Oh well, worth a shot. The feature film that follows is likewise dark, though notably colder than the blazing oil of that opening. Fincher’s latest frequently made me wish I were watching another film about an isolated author ostensibly writing a memoir for a powerful man on a beautifully shot wintry coast, The Ghost Writer. That may just be because Polanski’s film is better, but I think it also has to do with its more straight-forward moral allegiances. There we were hopeful that the entrapped scribe would finally reveal the corrupt politician’s unsightly past, until a typically pessimistic Polanski ending further justified our exasperation with evil rich white men. Here, as Mark and others have already noted, our enjoyment of this Gothic Scandinavian whodunit is predicated on our partial complicity as viewers in a character’s rape—and, by parallelism, that of the many previous victims implicated in the case that Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) eventually investigate. The resulting retribution aims to be proportionate to the foregoing acts of sexual violence, which, it’s implied, justifies their exceptionally explicit portrayal on-screen. See, Henry, this already seems too charged a conversation for Academy members to be having, especially when they could just go vote for morally uncomplicated trash like The Help instead. What do you think: does Fincher’s way of forcing these issues actually make Dragon Tattoo more appealing?

STEWART:
Too charged, perhaps, but there’s a pretty plain moral simplicity here, too, no? Lisbeth becomes this absurd repository for all that’s awful and abusive about how men treat women, the barbarity of this misogyny highlighted by the red-herring connection of the case she’s investigating to Scandinavian Nazis. And if there’s one thing the Academy loves, it’s movies about the WWII-era Jewish experience, yeah? I think what’s most damaging to this movie’s Oscar chances is that it’s lowbrow and artless, a pulpy streamlining of Steig Larsson’s knotty, already artless plotting—efficient perhaps, but Oscarbait’s gotta be more than summer fare with a prestige-season gloss; it’s gotta make at least pretenses toward significance! And probably feature fewer car chases, eh?

SUTTON:
Henry, while your theory that car chases are Oscar poison seems fairly sound—The French Connection being the exception that proves the rule—I don’t think that’s what’s going to end up hurting Dragon Tattoo‘s chances most. But one thing I’ll say in the film’s defense, on the subject of vehicles, is that Fincher has a very keen sense of the in-betweenness of traveling, journeys’ reflective down-time and the disorientation of disembarking from a car, train or plane in a new place. This is most evident when Mikael first arrives at Hedestad train station and the ominous first approach to the Vanger estate that follows shortly thereafter, but applies in varying degrees to any of the film’s many, many traveling sequences. (The montage of Mikael and Lisbeth’s criss-crossing paths during their investigation was some classic North by Northwest-era Hitchcock stuff.) Fincher gets to do this partly thanks to the film’s European setting—a movie with this much traveling set in the U.S. would be a road movie simply by geographic necessity—which comes across without ever feeling touristy like, say My Week with Marilyn or Nine. But then of course Dragon Tattoo‘s Scandinavian setting comes with a very different set of conventions from such Mediterranean or Anglophilic fodder. Hey, Henry, you’re of Scandinavian descent; how good a job did you think Fincher did capturing your peoples’ dark, icy, existential gloom?

STEWART:
Well, my (American-born) father says the most Swedish thing about Larsson’s book was the copious amounts of coffee the characters drank day and night—a detail largely, though not entirely, lost in Fincher’s adaptation. But I think the book and movie have something more serious to say about Scandinavian society. Our colleague Larissa Kyzer went into this with more informed detail than I can pretend to, but there’s obviously a critique here of the State—it is, after all, a social services government employee who abuses his power to rape Lisbeth repeatedly. And there’s not only an acknowledgement of the region’s Nazi connections, but a connection between them and its present-day xenophobia (as when the revealed killer dismisses one of his foreign victims for her foreignness). You could read the movie as a contemporary Sweden grappling with its past, the different generations loosely representing different “Swedens,” sort of like The Descendants‘ characters do Hawaii. (Or would have, in a better movie.) This might also explain why (MEGA SPOILER) Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian changed one key plot point from the book: that Harriet is actually still alive, having escaped under a different identity; she becomes a kind of ghost from the past, come back to reconcile (and, implicitly, to judge?) the Sweden she left behind—like an exile, a Nouri al-Maliki type, come back to rule the country family business into a new era. Of course, she left in the first place to escape sexual abuse. That’s what Larsson/Fincher/Zaillian keep coming back to, eh?

SUTTON:
I dunno Henry, your socialist government-as-serial rapist reading sounds an awful lot like Tea Party propaganda to me. You know, the Swedish government and its various ghosts aren’t the only ones perpetrating sexual violence; evil capitalists do too! As Mikael, Daniel Craig doubles his phallus-flagellating episode from Casino Royale. First he’s symbolically castrated when his credibility as a journalist is obliterated after he attacks an incredibly powerful businessman based on an anonymous source’s unverified tip—which of course turns out to have been accurate. Mikael’s professional emasculation takes him from a swank Stockholm apartment to a freezing cold servants’ house in small-town Sweden—so humiliating! Later (MORE SPOILERS!) he very nearly gets literally castrated by the SUV-driving, glass house-dwelling, gun-collecting bad guy (Stellan Skarsgard). See, Henry, everybody resorts to sexual violence in Dragon Tattoo. As our resident torture porn expert, what do you make of this pop prestige pic’s recuperation of a much-loathed genre’s gruesome tropes?

STEWART:
Funny you should mention torture porn, Ben, because there is one interesting trope from that genre that carries into this film—videotaping. Lisbeth digitally records her graphic rape; later, she plays it back for her rapist, forcing him to re-experience the act, which also obviously suggests the audience’s complicity in it as observers. This is a pretty common device in contemporary horror movies—it’s hard to find one lately that doesn’t use it, in fact—but whereas in those movies it’s most often a villain who does the recording, here it’s our hero. Do you think Fincher, as director, is aligning himself with Lisbeth the victim, Ben? Or with Lisbeth the hero? Either way, I cry bull.

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt and Henry Stewart @henrycstewart