The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Part One:

SPOILER ALERT: THERE MIGHT BE SPOILERS. (I did my best to avoid giving away anything that would ruin the experience for people watching the films for the first time.)

So. I just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy of films. I decided to watch the extended edition films in Swedish, and I’m thoroughly impressed, captivated even. I haven’t seen drama done this well in a long time, and I’m glad I decided to watch them.  I want to do a review of each film, and then an overall analysis of the films as a narrative whole.

Author’s note: I have not read the books, I likely will, but this is an exercise in film and philosophy. So there’s that.I’ll tackle each two-part film as a narrative whole, but the reviews will be pretty dense, and also full of spoilers, since I want to deal with the material in the films and their discourse. I  would like to state plainly that I believe these novels/films are in fact a critique of modern society, liberalism, and capitalism, with special emphases on how those three play out in relation to women, violence and Truth.

The Society with the Museum Tattoo

“In the US alone, millions of women are victims of violent abuse every year…[d]omestic Violence cuts across all lines of class, race, family background, religion, and sexuality.” – Kathleen B. Jones, in Jodi Dean, ed., Feminism and the New Democracy: Resiting the Political (London: Sage, 1997), 13. [1]

Enter Sweden. Mid 2000’s. We’re introduced to Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyquist). Disgraced for publishing a story that’s thrown out as libel by the Swedish courts, Blomkvist is convicted and will be doing time in prison. Shaken by the conviction that threatens his life and magazine, Blomkvist decides to take a job off the radar.

Henrik Vanger is the fading patriarch of an affluent and secretive family who has hired Blomkvist for two purposes, solving the disappearance/murder of his niece Harriet in 1966 and writing a chronicle of the Vanger family. The offer comes as a surprise given that Blomkvist is a persona non-grata in the journalism world and has had to distance himself from Millennium, his magazine.

After a while of watching Blomkvist pore over documents while looking look cold and lonely, Blomkvist meets Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth deserves special mention because she overcomes many of the tropes of the modern female protagonist. She’s strong, independent and brilliant, filled with a cold detached pragmatism that holds the audience at arms length.

Lisbeth refuses to give us an inch, and we’re fascinated by her. She constantly defers the audience’s ability to label her, but without appearing fickle. She’s consistent, but without revealing too much. She’s ambiguous, but without being flirtatious or parading her mystery as is typical of the genre. Cunning, cold, and yet strangely human, Lisbeth Salander defies traditional roles of heroine, and yet courts the audience all the same. Lisbeth is ultimately a character who gives less than two fucks about anyone or anything, including the audience.

Voyeurism and Exhibition: The Politics of Memory

Among the rituals of late capitalism now codified into the social structure of the cultures it inhabits is the museum. The museum is a sort of scrubbing of the historical artifact. It is a colonization of the object, and a re-narration of the artifact used to support the overarching cultural narrative. The museum dictates to us the frame of reference, overcoming anachronism through narrative, conquering context through prescription. The way in which the exhibit functions does not so much reveal the truth of the subject as it tells us the acceptable truth about a subject.

The museum is in fact a perverse institution in and of itself.

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate the gift Henrik Vanger receives every year in time for his birthday. This is a clever use of framing for the mystery, but speaks deeper to Larsson’s critique of modern society. In the films, these framed flowers are a reminder to Vanger of his niece’s disappearance, they are haunting to him and represent the disappearance of his joy. At the end of the film, there’s a revelation of who the flowers are from.

In Museum Without Walls, art historian and novelist Andre Malraux describes the “museum effect”. This effect is that the very placement of the object within the museum creates its importance and validity.  Larsson uses this museum not only to tell a good story, but to highlight how the framing of information actually changes not only the tone but the actual content of the information. So too these flowers, having been carefully placed in an exhibit become a haunting reminder of the nature, politics and presentation of information. [2] So too, this museum effect, the politics of display and exhibition will become a recurring theme in the films.

That Vanger makes a museum of these macabre gifts is no accident. In Foucauldian terms the museum is an institute of indoctrination.

 “An awareness of how relations among human beings are shaped by built space can help all of us to comprehend more fully the experiences of our daily lives and the cultural assumptions in which they are immersed.” [3] Leslie Kanes Weisman, Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-Made Environment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

The Museum appropriates a response from the viewer by shaping their behavior. The audience is told what to think about these framed flowers, not just through narration, but through their deliberate placement in the narrative as a museum. The beholder is given a limited frame of reference with which to shape and understand the value and context of the information presented. Larsson is asking us to behold the exhibit, and to watch as information shapes the rest of the story.

The museum is that place in which values are authorized, and then once appropriately shaped, encouraged. The museum inherently tells us not only what to see, but also how to see it.. [4] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). I believe Larsson takes the opportunity to poke fun at his own narrative, and also to highlight the way in which re-narration/narration, prescription and violence clash intersect and pull at each other in the narrative. In grasping this fundamental little hint, one begins to see the entire larger frame of Larsson’s work.

The museum of Henrik Vanger isn’t just about some of the clues I’ve pointed out, it goes deeper than that. That such a framing and use of the museum is later undone by revelations in the story is not accidental, but actually a critique of the way in which information is shaped and presented to us. This will happen time and again as Lisbeth provides the context for a critique of power/knowledge and the ways in which society accepts various framings of information and uses them against the subject for their own gain.

What the museum has to do with voyeurism will become quite clear.

The entire origin of the film is based on investigative journalism, it’s built on a type of looking into the life of another. Here Wennerstrom, the subject who wins the libel case, provides the backdrop for the voyeuristic context. He’s the villain, who establishes Blomkvist’s research, and also the subject of investigation by Salander who then accesses the computer of and spies on Blomkvist and assists him in digging into the Vanger family’s past.

Archaeology and Rupture

Stieg Larsson builds the next leg of his narrative using archaeology and rupture. The digging into the past for evidence is a classic staple of the mystery novel, but it also stands in this context for a deeper sort of digging. A digging at the foundations of modernism, violence and the eruptions the past makes into the present. Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander present a challenge to a world that has forgotten. They ask us to remember. This is crucial for understanding Larsson as a critic of modern culture. It is not just that our protagonists are asking us to remember Harriet, but that they are asking Swedish society to remember that Nazi sympathy is a very real thing, and that violence happens on all levels of society.

Larsson makes a definitive statement as tensions heat up on the island, that memory, even the private memory of Vanger who I take to represent a sort of allegorical stand-in for Sweden, is political. James Carrol once said “Forgetfulness is the handmaiden of tyranny,” and how right he was. The island is a land of the illusion of forgetfulness, it is not unknowing so much as not-recognizing. We confront in the Vanger family the Genealogy of Silence. But we should not be surprised, and Larsson isn’t. To quote a favorite Zizekian phrase: “the real secret is that there is no secret.”

Conclusion:

So what does it mean to remember?

This is among the biggest questions we should ask ourselves in dealing with the Vanger Group, their narrative and its place in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Stieg Larsson is using this in his narrative structure to talk about post-war Sweden and how society has moved on with too many skeletons in the closet, with far too many ignored memories. What it means to remember in Sweden, and across the novels is something at once dangerous, and liberating. In fact, Larsson is pointing to the liberal modern world with museums dedicated to a particular understanding of the world after World War II, and reminding us that not all is as it seems. It’s not just about writing a good murder-mystery. He brings a mirror to Swedish society in particular, and liberalism in general and telling it to behold itself.

He’s asking the modern world in all its liberalism to pay attention, to remember, and to recognize the scathing silences that make “civility” possible. But Larsson doesn’t want to stop short, as Commissioner Gordon does in The Dark Knight Rises, Larsson asserts and rightly so that Justice is determined by the Truth, and not by those who author the silence.

Stieg Larsson also makes a definitive statement about the cost of Truth and how the Truth and establishment intersect and clash.To alter the way we see the museum presented to us, the codified history as brought to our reception isn’t just a happy accident, it is in fact, arduous work. Recontextualizing our entire frame of reference is sure to cause violence, and to require courage. As a statement on investigative journalism, Larsson celebrates . Stieg Larsson knows exactly what he means to  say: that such an unmasking creates a circle of violence by those wishing to escape, by those who control the silence. He’s also saying that such unmasking is not necessarily easy, but can have positive consequences.

Afterword:

As someone who lived in Oklahoma, I’d just like to take a moment to conclude this part of my review with a remembrance of Woody Guthrie, who has tragically been awarded a museum in downtown Tulsa. Having scrubbed him of social relevance, of his socialist activism, and of his story, he is now re-presented as a tepid, mild mannered popular musician, Oklahoma’s all-American establishment activist.

This tragedy is only symptomatic of a larger trend to re-appropriate all of history under the American narrative of capitalism. The unreality and untruth we tolerate as a society continues to escalate. We establish fictions about friend and foe in order to perpetuate the myths necessary to make America work.

I personally will not visit this museum, now and possibly ever. It strikes me as a tragedy, not a history.

In honor of Woody Guthrie, the socialist. May we only build memorials insofar as we can speak truthfully about their contents.

References:

[1] Kathleen B. Jones, in Jodi Dean, ed., Feminism and the New Democracy: Resiting the Political (London: Sage, 1997), 13.

[2] Andre Malraux, Museum Without Walls (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967).

[3] Leslie Kanes Weisman, Discrimination by Design: A Feminist Critique of the Man-Made Environment (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979)

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