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I went to see what may end up being the best film of 2012 last week – David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I’ve managed to avoid Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of books and the original TV/film series starring Noomi Rapace, so I went into it fresh. If you want to stay the same way, you should probably avoid this post.

Lisbeth Salander, the girl in the title, is a kind of superhero. A private investigator, she has a costume, an origin story (however unpleasant) and gadgets, just like Batman. But unlike the Caped Crusader, she appears to have actual superpowers. She has an eidetic memory and processes complex information and mathematical calculations microchip-quick. Her long-term strategic thinking would be the envy of any military commander. And even in a data-slave society where whole lives are lived online, her investigative abilities and tech-savvy stunts seem almost supernatural. She’ll get to know her quarry better than a British tabloid journalist.

And she can tussle like Batman, too. The boy who tries to rob her in the subway station gets a lesson he won’t forget – and he isn’t the last nasty piece of work in the film to gets his come-uppance from the girl in the title.

The story, and the way Fincher chose to film it, reminds me of some of the great movies of the seventies. Especially ones which relied on single moments of shock and depravity to get people talking once they’d left the cinema, quite apart from how brilliant the rest of the films were. Like The Exorcist – “They say Jesus is everywhere, but I’m not sure he wanted to go there” – or Deliverance – “Is that how they mate down-rivah?”- or Marathon Man – “Mmmm, clove oil. That might go nice in a cupcake.”

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has at least two scenes which qualify for this status. But even in these horrible moments, Fincher was playful.

In one scene we cut from a horrendous assault to an image of a closed apartment door… and the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Thank god that’s over, we think.

But then Fincher opens the door and takes us back inside. This was a cute shot on its own, but when he actually repeated the trick, in the same scene, I was astonished at the sheer impudence. I might have chuckled and applauded, had I not been watching someone being buggered.

Separate from the shocks, Lisbeth’s brawl on the subway escalators was another bravura sequence. As she leaps around the moving stairways, fleet, nimble and crafty as a macaque, the other commuters gape while her would-be robber bleeds. I was gaping too. You show-off, Mr Fincher.

Sometimes, the very best of us should show off. To remind us what they are capable of, and how far behind them everyone else is.

The director seemed to have a firm grip of the politics of the story. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s original Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women, and the actions of sociopathic, exploitative males were at the forefront of this tale.

It’s clear Lisbeth (played beautifully by Rooney Mara) is a damaged woman even before we discover the root cause of her difficulties. This is part of her appeal, just as much as Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma helps us put a human face beneath Batman’s cowl. And as we see her issues being played out again under the hand of a bloated, hairy, sweaty bureaucrat in his forties, the audience squirms with revulsion.

But then things change. Halfway through this film, Daniel Craig’s journalist character, Mikael Blomkvist, is seduced by Lisbeth. I didn’t expect for a minute that these two would end up in bed. The story had spent so long detailing ugly realities and awkward relationships that you felt that such a tired boy-meets-girl cliché was off-limits. Besides, as Craig’s character admits, the coupling doesn’t look good. Mikael Blomkvist is not James Bond in a month of Sundays, from his cardigans to his dangling reading glasses to his lined smoker’s face. “But… I’m old,” he protests, even as Lisbeth brazenly strips.

He cannot resist, of course. She’s in control. And I suppose that was reassuring, at first.

Yet, it was at this point that I became troubled. It’s obvious to the viewer that Blomkvist is a principled, fair man with a social conscience who loves and cares for his teenage daughter. But no matter how many of his emails she hacks, Lisbeth Salander can’t really know this for sure. For all she knows, Blomkvist could have been another version of the public official who abuses her, simply packaged in a more palatable form. And as she has nothing to gain from this tryst, we must discount any cold, calculating angle to her act of seduction.

Also… And maybe it’s just me… But did anyone else think that Salander became more feminine after she bedded Blomkvist? Didn’t the make-up get cleaner, her features softer? Her angles less severe?

She goes from wildcat to kitten with her leading man, even allowing him to literally pet her in one incongruously sweet scene. Perhaps it’s his kindness. Perhaps it’s because he fixes her breakfast and doesn’t attempt to seduce her immediately. But I just didn’t buy it. A girl who’s been abused by middle-aged men throughout her life throws herself on the virtues of another middle-aged man? Are we sure about that?

The narrative seems to suggest that all a pretty girl needs to succeed is a photogenic, white, middle-class, middle-aged man’s cock. How terribly convenient.

It would have been more of a challenge had Lisbeth’s bureaucratic abuser not been sweaty-bellied and unappealing. Imagine he had been played by Daniel Craig, instead, with Yorick van Wageningen as Blomkvist.

But then that would go against the grain of the kind of pairings and relationships cinema audiences, even when it comes to more cerebral fare as this, have been conditioned to accept. The film’s instances of sexual abuse and exploitation were made easy to swallow in context, even while being difficult to watch. Separately, Blomkvist and Salander’s love-making pandered to the sort of Hollywood prejudices that I didn’t expect to see in a blatantly non-mainstream movie.

Don’t be put off by my quibbling, though. It’s a terrific film. Rooney Mara is brilliant, and I want to see her as Salander on the big screen again.

I’m just disappointed that this dragon could be so easily tamed by the same old white knight.


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