Like A Bjorn Borg Backhand
I watched the 2 versions of the ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, if for no other reason than to watch how the same text gets played out twice. The business of English language re-makes of films made in other languages is quite fraught with cultural anxiety and dodgy understanding of the context whence the originals emerge. ‘The Departed’ for instance, was a cringe-worthy effort from a production point of view, if only because it didn’t capture the sense of commitment in the Asian gangs in ‘Infernal Affairs’. ‘Shall We Dance’ was an interesting exercise, but even that film never captures the deep existential angst of ‘salarymen’ in Japan – it recasts the main character as a well-to-do lawyer. You could say it missed the whole point of the original. At the same time, by missing these things, Hollywood opens itself up to revealing just what makes America tick.
Cyberpunk Is Now
Cyberpunk in cinema died a horrible death with ‘The Matrix’ movies. It’s true. Keannu Reaves can do that to a cool genre. What’s truly great to see is that the girl referred to in the title Lisbeth is every bit the cyberpunk as once envisioned by William Gibson et al. She’s hooked into the world of data and recognises no boundaries as she travels freely in search of data. Both films work in the furious montage of screens dumping data and lines, but what one is left with is the distinct feeling that Cyberpunk was always a metaphor about the present.
The story is at its essence, an information war waged against an errant serial killer, operating from privilege and power. In both versions, it is clear that the outsiders are trying to prise open the vault of information locked away in time and in archives. Lisbeth hacks into these clusters of information in order to make sense of the world. Similarly, Mikael is assembling clues in order to decode a structure. It is possible to say the story only gets untangled because of the electronic transferability of information.
It’s good to see the cyberpunk ethos alive and kicking in both versions.
The Limits Of Information
About a decade ago, I came across something interesting in the New Scientist that claimed that given a system, there is a mathematical procedure that allows us to determine how much information ca be gained from that system, through something called Frieden Analysis which applies Fisher information in statistical analysis.
What’s very interesting about the work Lisbeth and Mikael carry out is that in both films they are up against the granularity of the records, and thus what amount and quality of information can be gleaned from these records and photographs becomes the central playing ground. In the past, this sort of thing used to be the provenance of CIA movies, FBI movies and certain kinds of detective movies, the degree to which these characters parse for information bring the notion of a limit of how much information can be gleaned from any system. The story is fanciful in parts, but it breaks new ground in offering up the extreme.
Deliver Us From Swedish Furniture
For all his vaunted filmography and track record, for all his perfectionism, for all his reputation and admirers (myself included in that throng), David Fincher turns in a rather stilted and tedious rendition. It’s a disappointing film. It has nowhere near the tension of ‘Se7en’ or the emotional commitment of ‘Fight Club’ or wide ranging a vision as ‘Zodiac’. This film reminds me of Jonathan Demme’s work on ‘Silence of the Lambs’ which in some circles would be high praise but alas, I peg Fincher higher as a director.
Maybe it is the effect of being a Hollywood movie with recognisable stars, but the American version seems strangely lacking in emotional nuance. It’s difficult when the male lead is the current James Bond as well. You’re too well aware of the baggage of other movies he’s bringing to this film. The Sweden in the American version is an odd place we don’t recognise from anywhere. Much like the Japan in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, this is certainly a kind of Sweden, but not from this planet.
Let’s face it, it’s a difficult, daunting task, but in order to get through the story, Fincher’s version strips away the little things that remind us the story has a cultural context. And there’s a heck of a lot of Swedish furniture that Jack and Tyler Durden would like to set fire to.
So what is this cultural context that drops off the radar? In the Swedish version, we’re treated to many scenes where toasts are made, glasses raised and everybody says “Skoll!” Each of these scenes knit together a sense of community and society and tradition.
Another aspect of the story not present in the American version is how Mikael has a past that connects to the Vanger family, and thus gives him some insight into the missing woman. This connection is what takes him into the heart of the story, but also, what allows him to keep motivated in pursuit of the truth. The filial and near-filial obligations propel parts of the story as Mikael and Lisbeth search for fragments of meaning.
There is a certain aspect of the American version when Christopher Plummer’s Henrik explains in an exposition the place of the Vanger family in Swedish society, but there is no equivalent scene in the Swedish version. The exposition that is important in the Swedish version is how people are connected to the missing girl, and how the task lands o Mikael by dint of his association with the family.
Staging Anal Rape
One of the most harrowing and awful parts of the story is the anal rape of Lisbeth by Bjurmann. Both films go through the process in some amount of prosaic interest. The American version is peculiar in that Bjurman stops to put on a condom, which at once is sensible in an otherwise outrageously wrong process. The Swedish version is more ‘artistic’ in as much as the camera gets right in to the faces of the characters, showing their expression.
Afterwards, Lisbeth hobbles home in pain and in the Swedish version the shot is 100% objective, shot from the side, but in the American version it is 100% subjective, shot from behind Lisbeth as she hobbles. What’s disturbing about the American version is that it puts us in the perspective of Bjurmann seeing her off, and posits the audience as the voyeur and perpetrator of the anal rape. This is in stark contrast to the Swedish version which posits a gallows humour laugh at Lisbeth’s plight, which is probably inadvertently sexist.
When you think about it, there really isn’t a shot you can set up that doesn’t place the audience as some kind of emotional participant in the rape, with Lisbeth as the victim.
Don’t Trust Those Institutions
It’s spelled out pretty clearly that Lisbeth is a little anomalous in the context of her society. She expresses her alienation by dressing in the most foreboding cross of goth and punk stylings while maintaining an air of somebody with little emotional expression. The text in both films is deeply sceptical about the institutions of Sweden, ranging from the police, social welfare agencies, psychiatrists, security police, industrialists, the mass media and ultimately the ordinary person on the street.
Both films struggle with the utter imbalance of trying to talk about these things while positing this character as the foil in order to carve up the system. As creations in fiction go, Lisbeth Salander is interesting in as much as she is a cipher for what is antithetical to the establishment in Sweden. What’s interesting is that the text 0- in both film versions – tells us that she is in fact a creation of these institutions. It’s a weird dynamic. It is almost as if the text wants to hide that everybody comes from somewhere, and yet the whole thing hinges on the fact that people exist in space and time and leave a mark that is detectible through documentation and photographs; we all come from somewhere, including Lisbeth.