Coffee and Cigarettes

I almost but not quite regard the time I spent reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy as time wasted. I’d been told that I’d find them compulsive page-turners, but in reality, the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, struck me as weirdly draggy, as the author described shopping trips, love trysts, business affairs, all pedantically spread out over a one-year cycle like a Harry Potter book. The series only started to get exciting on the second book, and I don’t know what led me to even give it a chance, but it did develop into something gripping as Lisabeth Salander’s own story started emerging. The third volume is just ridiculous, with its albino giant invulnerable to pain (I guess he’s a kind of caricature of Swedish Nazism), but pretty good fun.

I stopped watching the Swedish adaptation of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO after it became clear that it was just going to repackage the book into an endless series of micro-scenes, none hanging around long enough to develop any dramatic meat on their bones — movie as stripped-down spine. So I was kind of wary of David Fincher’s Hollywood remake, a movie which could theoretically be dismissed as redundant by anyone who can read subtitles. Would this be another bland PANIC ROOM, or worse, a BENJAMIN boring bastard  BUTTON?

It’s not, but it’s not a FIGHT CLUB or SOCIAL NETWORK either — I’d say it’s work-for-hire in which Fincher has been able to invest some real interest, not purely as a technical exercise in grafting Brad Pitt’s head onto a dancing baby. Like the novel, it’s a pulp potboiler with pretensions, but Fincher uses cinematic language considerably more deftly than journalist Larsson used prose, at least in translation. With its slick surfaces (dig the Ikea torture chamber with its colour-coordinated power tools!) and gliding camera moves (resisting, this time, the urge to fly ghostlike through a kettle’s handle or a night club bannister), the movie is consistently pleasurable to the eye, and the soundtrack, not just Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor’s buzzing, throbbing score, but the whole mix, with its fifty different kinds of wind, is a triumph — this movie wants very badly to be seen on the big screen.

It’s not perfect: Fincher’s tendency to include a cutaway insert every time somebody picks something up, puts it down or throws it away, is a Svankmajer-like tic than gets a bit annoying once you notice it (and arguably detracts from the power of the one key object discarded in the last scene). One the other hand, Fincher can do restraint: he includes numerous slick shots of Salander’s bike slicing through Nordic nightscapes, but holds off a POV of onrushing road until the last act.

Performances: while it’s nice to see Geraldine James, Steven Berkoff and Martin Jarvis (!), the actress playing Salander naturally gets the lion’s share of one’s attention. It’s to Larsson’s credit that he somehow made the quasi-autistic, kickboxing, computer hacking, physics genius, bisexual bike riding damaged goods into a vaguely convincing pulp fiction heroine. Admittedly I didn’t really watch Noomi Rapace’s origination of the role, but I did glance at it as Fiona was watching, and found her riveting – if the film had been able to keep up with her, it’d have been a wild ride. Fiona declares the new version to be even stronger though, so there you have it: Mickey Rooney Rooney Mara is an even better Salander.

Daniel Craig is quickly becoming the go-to guy for those who find Clive Owen just a bit too effervescent, Liam Neeson too irksomely perky. But he works here, as Larsson’s transparent self-portrait business journalist / loverboy. At least he doesn’t look like a baby potato. Robin Wright makes the most of her scattered moments of screen time… the only odd thing about the acting is that the Swedish accents, already an odd choice to my taste, are somewhat inconsistent. Craig doesn’t really bother with one, Rooney’s is exemplary, and everybody on the TV news programmes sounds like the Swedish Chef. Also, the written matter seen in the film varies between Swedish and English, seemingly at random.

Stephen Zaillian’s script is largely faithful to the book, but prunes away much excess and tightens ingenuously. “At least you’re not going to prison,” is a brilliant line that not only hacks away an unproductive diversion in the book, but lets us know in advance that this has been done. Intact are all the uncomfortable little references to Blomkvist/Larsson’s poor physical condition, prefiguring his tragic/absurd early death right before his books saw print. And Zaillian wisely jettisons the whole discussion about suppressing the killer’s identity and never revealing his victims’ fates, in order to protect the Wennerstrom family business. This distasteful scene rather gave the lie to the whole book’s thesis, about the wickedness of misogynists or something. We’re meant to believe that the hero believes business interests are more important than letting the victims’ families know what became of their daughters. We’re also meant to believe he has the right to make that call, despite being in business with the Wennerstroms himself. And we’re meant to believe that Salander, herself a victim of misogynist violence, would go along with it. That’s one smart script edit right there — the question of publicity simply isn’t mentioned, and we don’t wonder about it.

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16 Responses to “Coffee and Cigarettes”

  1. I really enjoyed reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. There is an element of the cartoonish in parts, I agree. I have lived in Stockholm, so I recognised a lot of the places he describes. Still haven’t seen any of the films.

  2. Both versions are really faithful, on the whole, but only Fincher’s really provides the same slightly guilty pleasure as the book.

  3. A pulp potboiler with pretensions. Nice alliteration there.

  4. Aye, guilty pleasure indeed. Speaking of which, I enjoyed Liam Neeson in “Taken”.

  5. I would feel guilty about even SEEING that! I feel kind of bad for Neeson, all his films seem to be constructed on that model now. His new one is about him punching wolves, but the trailer makes it somehow look exactly like Taken.

  6. He has a certain set of skills..the skill to make pained faces and punch wolves. I’d go see it if they called the film Wolf-Puncher. I wouldn’t feel badly for Liam Neeson about his current work. He seems to enjoy being a salt of the earth action hero. I’m sure the money is not bad.

    The one thing that tends to distance me from the Girl films is the fact that we have to endure all the stylized rape and beatings like a lesser Noe exercise in order to get the revenge.

  7. There is a even a page on Facebook dedicated to ‘The awkward phonecall with Liam Neeson after you have taken his daughter’
    A different and more subdued set of skills were employed by Liam in Richard Eyre’s The Other Man.

  8. “Now, Liam, are you sitting down? I have some bad news for you, but I don’t want you to fly off the handle, OK?”

    He’s often a very good actor, I just feel bad that he’s wasted, and that I can’t go see him in any of these things because I despise them.

    I think there’s a whole post to be written about violence and revenge movies… well, probably several posts, but I’ll just do one. If that.

  9. I liked the Swedish version better. Yes Fincher’s great at creating slick cinematic surfaces a la Ridley Scott, but it’s the same damned story and in it’s most engaging part the same damn scene recreating “The Day Harriet Disapeared” in neo-Blow-Up fashion. Worst of all it wimps out at the end, with our presumably tough-as-Nine-Inch-Nails heroine becaoming a weepy little girl cause Daniel Craig doesn’t love her.

    Boo Hoo! (with an extra helping of “BOO!”)

    At the end of the day it’s nothing more than a straight fantasy about nailing lesbian punk.

  10. Oh, it’s that alright. And that’s straight out of the book. With Daniel Craig the attraction is a little more believable, but only a little. Fortunately, the follow-up books don’t focus on the romance — it becomes a rather touching friendship.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    For me, this movie’s main attraction is the prospect of the ever-lovely Julian Sands in the flashbacks. Mind you, I imagine he has **** all to do!

  12. Oh, less than that — I didn’t even spot him! And I still can’t work out why they thought they needed him.

  13. They needed someone as sexy as Christopher Plummer to play him as a youth.

    I believe I mention that when I was living in central Hollywood, Julian Sands lived a block away. I used to see him every morning jogging shirtless in white shorts past my bedroom window.

    BLISS!

  14. I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo yesterday. The only problem with having read the book is that the element of surprise has gone.

  15. I was never really surprised by the book. I mean, I didn’t guess all the twists, but I wasn’t amazed at their cleverness either.

  16. I hope to see the extended version of the Swedish” Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” soon. It’s over 3 hours long.

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