It’s rare that a film centers on a feminist hero, and even more rare for such a film to meet with rave reviews. But the decidedly feminist Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (based on the internationally bestselling book) drew critical acclaim when it premiered in the U.S. last month, unrated and under limited release. However, the rave reviews, with their lingering emphasis on the heroine’s tough-girl look and “inexplicable” beauty, didn’t prepare me for the film’s disquieting articulation of intense sexual violence.
Two major reviews of the film (in The New York Times, and Time magazine) neglected to mention that central element, while dedicating more than ample space to dissections of actor Noomi Rapace’s appearance. Manohla Dargis of the The New York Times describes her at length as “seductive,” embodying “a host of au courant fantasies” and “a fine professional scowler, with cheekbones that thrust like knives and a pout that’s mostly pucker.” Time magazine’s Mary Pols notes how her Spanish heritage accents the Swedish in her, and that her strong nose and prominent cheekbones make her “inexplicably attractive.”
The critical focus on Rapace’s physical features would be less surprising if Salander were less developed a character, or if the string of sensuous adjectives didn’t belie a central element of the heroine’s persona: She is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, her gritty appearance crafted to deter, not encourage, men’s advances.
Which is, in small part, why the scenes of sexual violence in this movie are some of the most unsettling I’ve ever seen.
Hollywood has a nasty habit of depicting rape victims as sensuous (if not complicit) women, for whom rape is a logical consequence of either their brazen sexuality or their unfortunate beauty (Jennifer’s Body, Lolita, The Accused, etc.). They are universally attractive, often flirtatious and usually naive.
Salander, on the other hand, is the anti-Hollywood victim. She exudes strength of body and will, not sex and luster. She’s flat-chested, fully-clothed, antisocial and reclusive. She fights back. One fully expects her to face off with the film’s villains but never to be subdued by them. The rape is perhaps as surprising to the audience as it is to the character.
Salander is sexually assaulted twice by her much-older parole officer (she is on parole for unnamed crimes), whose quietly menacing manner is uncomfortably believable. The first time, she submits with a grudging resignation that suggests a chilling familiarity with this scenario. The second time, she is viciously assaulted. While the scene isn’t pornographic, the vehemence of her excruciating struggle renders it horrific enough to still set my heart racing. One feels her desperate determination to be angrier than her attacker is strong, and it’s stunning that her ferocity fails to save her.
But she isn’t Hollywood’s conventional rape victim. After some preparation, she returns to the villain’s apartment and tasers, hog-ties and beats him, after which she tattoos the words “I am a sadist pig and a rapist” across his bulbous gut. All this occurs before the unspooling of the main plot, in which she teams up with a has-been journalist to investigate a series of sadistic rape-homicides that began more than 40 years ago. As the investigation proceeds, Salander’s status as feminist hero is further secured. She is the one who puts the puzzle together, rescues her partner from harm’s way and sees the villain to his much-deserved end.
As her character develops, we see how her earlier experiences exacerbate her severe anti-social tendencies and fuel her reckless acts of heroism. The violence she has experienced is reflected repeatedly in the other women characters, most of whom have been victims themselves.
Given the movie’s emphasis on exposing and redressing violence against women, reviewers’ emphasis on Rapace’s appearance seems particularly misplaced, as does their omission of the rape scenes. The New York Times says simply that she “is also a victim of violence.” Time makes no mention of her victimization at all. Rolling Stone remarks not on the gut-wrenching depiction of her rapes, but on the disturbing nature of her retaliation, saying, “Lisbeth’s revenge on her abusive guardian … is graphic enough to freeze your blood.” Funny with whom we choose to empathize, isn’t it?
I’m not sure why reviewers–in particular, women reviewers–glossed over the sexual violence. Men writing for major publications (Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane, Michael O’Sullivan) certainly didn’t mince words about the violence. I had thought that a woman would be more likely than a man to reflect upon that disturbing aspect of the film, as we are instilled with the belief that rape is a constant, imminent threat. Women are taught to take every precaution against being raped; men are never expected to take precautions against committing it. But perhaps rape in movies has become a kind of exception. It is such a trope of mainstream films that it’s unremarkable–an easy way of expressing villainy rather than making a statement about the prevalence of sexual violence in society.
The Swedish novel upon which this film is based was originally published under the title Men Who Hate Women. I prefer this, as it better articulates the sinister dynamics at play. This is not, after all, a story about what women look like (tattooed or otherwise), but about what women are capable of, even when subjected to the worst of men’s depravities.
Look for our review of the forthcoming conclusion to Steig Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, in the Spring issue of Ms., due out in May. To give or receive the magazine, subscribe online for just $25 per year.