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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This film, like Steig Larsson’s book, serves up satisfying feminist retribution to the men who hate women.  And I’m probably that viewer the filmmakers dreaded:  someone who walked into the theater with a lot of trepidation, way too familiar with Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of books and worried that the film would be too literal or not faithful enough (aka the Harry Potter dilemma).  Count me as officially relieved, then, that they did a good job of selecting the right parts to put into this 2½-hour film, leaving out only (and sadly) most of the twisty-turny corporate corruption narrative.  They found the right guy to play the muckraking journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist):  homely and decidedly middle-aged, his face a bit sunken by gravity and acne scarring.  Most of all I fretted that they would have played the character Lisbeth Salander as a gorgeous sexpot hiding behind her goth makeup and piercings.  Noomi Rapace is the perfect movie rendition of Salander — not so skinny and withdrawn as in the book (some of whose characters even wonder whether she’s autistic or brain damaged).  Rapace prompts the viewer’s curiosity and sympathy while still being unknowable and filled with an alarming rage.  Her version of Salander mediates between her still surface and her occasional bouts of violence by using her black eyes carefully in all her scenes — when they dart a bit, you know she’s accessing her magnificent intellect like the computers she hacks so effortlessly.  Still waters run deep, she shows us.

The Swedish title of both film and book is Men Who Hate Women (Män som hatar kvinnor, which makes me want to know exactly why that title got lost in translation to English).  Therefore, it’s custom-made to appeal to me, and not just because the author’s feminist rage at sexual and psychological abuse of women is so satisfyingly on display:  its other main character is lefty, heroic journalist Blomkvist (and how much do I love a story of heroic journalists, from “His Girl Friday” to “All the President’s Men” and “Good Night and Good Luck”?).  Hired to solve the 40-year-old disappearance and likely murder of the young neice of a Swedish corporate magnate, Blomkvist shares the story equally with Salander, a young woman whose formidable outward appearance serves as armor against the horrific life she’s had, of which we only get glimpses.  It’s because of her hacking skills that she gets involved in the case, and she eventually moves up to the remote part of the Swedish coast where Blomkvist is working.  They begin to realize that in addition to being related to a miserably mean family of former Nazi sympathizers, the missing girl had stumbled onto a string of serial murder/ tortures of at least six women shortly before she disappeared.

If the journalist in the film channels the male author’s well-meaning feminism, Salander has long personal experience of abuse and rape.  One of the things I liked so much about the books is that Larsson didn’t try to get the reader to “understand” or effuse emotion at Salander, the rape victim; rather, he wants to do something about it, perhaps partly via the books.  In the process he offers women like Salander an enormous respect that the paternalistic shits who write for “Law & Order: SVU” should watch carefully. The film doesn’t back away from the brutal scene in which she’s abused and raped by the new lawyer appointed to serve as her guardian, a man in a uniquely powerful position to inflict this abuse.  Neither does it back away from an equally brutal scene in which she enacts retribution against him.

It’s worth pausing to think for a moment about rape onscreen, which I truly hate.  From “Boys Don’t Cry” to “Monster,” I think these scenes in general are far too disturbing to advance the story, and become sick set-pieces unto themselves.  Moreover, such scenes often reflect a broader popular culture that tends to write off such violence as exceptional (that guy is a sick nutcase) or targeted solely at marginal women (the female-to-male Hilary Swank character in “Boys Don’t Cry” or the butch prostitute played by Charlize Theron in “Monster”).  Authors Sarah Projansky and Jacinda Read have criticized both the 1970s sexploitation rape-and-revenge narrative (which even has its own Wikipedia entry) and its contemporary version.  Does it work in “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” or is it merely more of the same?

I’m going to argue that it works, though I have a reservation.  Salander may well be a marginal woman, unknowable and resolutely determined to please no one — cloaked in unprettiness, unimpressed by anyone — but the film makes it clear that she has done nothing to prompt the rape.  The film also makes it clear that her abuser isn’t a crazy, exceptional misogynist; its very structure is premised on the knowledge that misogyny is rampant, ranging from the horrific to the mundane.  Neither does the film insist that the rape defines her, explains her subsequent motives, or transforms her from one person to another.  She remains fully in charge of her bisexual sex life after as before.  But despite saying all of this, I admit, the rape scene still doesn’t sit right with me — there’s still something deeply wrong with showing that kind of exploitation of women onscreen (I’m willing to argue it’s different in a book), and Salander’s satisfying punishment of her rapist doesn’t make it right.

But I’m willing to stick to heralding the Salander character because she’s such a refreshing alternative to the barrage of patronizing narratives about abused women and children in U.S. television and film, narratives that turn them into easily digestible, stereotypical victims for an unimaginative audience.  Enjoying the fact that she never becomes an object makes me realize how thoroughly exhausted I am by screenwriters who aren’t really willing to admit or come to grips with the fact that one out of six women is raped in her lifetime. (See this story from the Washington City Paper about how the police treat women who experience rape, making it all the clearer why Salander feels an antipathy for the cops.)

I have two regrets.  First, that Larsson’s premature death at age 50 means that Salander is limited to only three books (and potentially three films).  And second, that David Fincher is concocting an American remake of the film.  Let’s all hope it isn’t true that George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp are being considered for the Blomkvist part.  (Remember the end of “PeeWee’s Big Adventure,” when his adventure is turned into a major motion picture starring James Brolin as PeeWee and Morgan Fairchild as his girlfriend Dottie?)  Late-breaking note:  Emily Rems of Bust Magazine says she “shudders to think” what Hollywood will do to butcher the feminist storyline.