“The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2009)

7 August 2010

As during most summers, I haven’t found much more than a few films that pass The Bechdel Test — that is, a film 1) with two or more women in it, 2) who talk to each other, and 3) about something other than a man.  In fact, even some of the best ones pass only by a slim margin, like “Winter’s Bone” … and that was pretty far-flung from summer movie fare.

But then there’s “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the second installment of the Swedish film trilogy version of Steig Larsson’s three-volume Millennium series that has sold cadrillions of copies worldwide.  Look, don’t get the wrong idea:  this film is inferior to the first one, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and it gives only short shrift to some of my favorite parts of the novel, like Lisbeth’s relationship with Miriam Wu.  But c’mon, it’s a hot summer and our critical defenses are down, as we’re tacky with sunscreen and eager for a couple of cool hours inside a blessedly dark theater.  Saintlike, the brilliant character of Lisbeth Salander is fighting our battles for us, veering back and forth between her unparalleled tech savvy in hacking computers and kicking the asses of bad guys ten times her size. 

For me, the character of Lisbeth addresses head-on a lot of the problems I have with our otherwise limited range of female action heroes (and here I’m also thinking about recent comments by Snarky’s Machine and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency).  She’s gay, she’s an intensely focused computer-smart researcher, she’s come through a horrific childhood of abuse, she’s barely 5 feet tall, and she doesn’t dress in clothes that send anyone mixed messages.  Her fury against men who hate women isn’t played for comic effect with a series of great one-liners; in fact, she’s very often silent, like the laconic heroes of old Westerns.  When her father abused her mother one too many times when Lisbeth was 12, she set him on fire.  She doesn’t try to get anyone to like her — and if there’s any message we can glean from this film, it’s that people like and trust her anyway.  Thinking about these things out loud is like Alison Bechdel articulating her Bechdel Test for films:  once you think about it and realize how few characters do much more than confirm men’s ideas about what makes a sexy or compelling woman, you want to become Lisbeth yourself.

Like I say, I’m not going to make any claims about the high quality of this film, which in some ways is a placeholder for the final film, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” (2009), which still has no release date set for the U.S. — a shame, as next year we’ll be subjected to David Fincher’s American remake of the first film, starring Daniel Craig as the muckraking journalist (depressed sigh).  The novels become increasingly focused on Lisbeth as they go along, and this film mirrored that tendency, delightfully.  As we left the theater last night, we burbled about all the parts of the novel that can’t help but make that final film better than this one.  As we wait for it, let’s all channel a little Lisbeth the next time that male colleague waits for you to laugh at his joke, one of those offensive Jim Beam commercials pops up on TV, or you feel a racial tension headache coming on from the latest right-wing nutbag ideas about repealing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  Ladies, turn on your computers and brush up on your kickboxing:  your skills may be needed soon.

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