The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

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APR 2010 Issue


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dir. Niels Arden Oplev (now playing)

The Girl on the Train, dir. André Téchiné (now playing)

Although they’re poles apart in style and intent, The Girl on the Train and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo both make a troubled young woman the centerpiece of a story combining sex, violence, crime, and vengeance, served up with a ladleful of swastikas. And both attest to society’s addictive interest in self-righteous victimhood.

Abu Ghraib, anyone? Peter Andersson and Noomi Rapace share a moment in <i>The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo</i>.
Abu Ghraib, anyone? Peter Andersson and Noomi Rapace share a moment in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

 But while Train examines our collective hunger for tales of victimization as a kind of sickness, Dragon Tattoo relentlessly exploits it. Guess which one sells more tickets? 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo puts Stieg Larsson’s best-selling airport product up on the screen, streamlining the plot but maintaining its lacework of implausibilities. A semi-disgraced lefty journalist (Michael Nyqvist, suitably rumpled) is hired by a business titan to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the titan’s granddaughter 40 years before. Apparently the old plutocrat has been too busy running his multinational empire to attend to the matter until now.

A “no way off the island” scenario so contrived it would make Agatha Christie blush narrows the list of suspects to a handful of other family members, a collection of decadents and dragons that includes a few of the unreconstructed Nazis without which no thriller of this sort would be complete. But the journalist gets nowhere until the “girl” of the title, charismatically portrayed by Noomi Rapace, comes to his rescue.

Her 1980s goth leathers, nose rings, and black lipstick hint at a troubled past, and so does her refusal to smile. She’s a staple of the genre in another way that’s also signaled by her autistic deadpan: she’s a computer hackette able to call up even the most obscure secrets with a few clicks on her keyboard and pull astonishingly well-shot video off a camera buried in a backpack.

On the plus side, the actors all do a fine job and the movie is a well-oiled machine that maintains its momentum through two and a half hours of plot twists and “Don’t go in there!” suspense. The Swedish scenery is lovely, too, in a suitably bleak Nordic way. But while the pacing zips along, the movie maintains the book’s criminally lazy plotting. This is the kind of thriller where the villain ties up not only the hero but a fistful of loose ends, considerately postponing the coup de grace in order to first explain all his misdeeds. The story feels like it was put together based on a preprinted form: Serial killers? Check. Nazis? Check. Inane biblical clues? Check. Hideous rapes? Check!

The reason The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo nonetheless sweeps us along is also the cheapest, ugliest thing about it: the way it revels in the pornography of violation. Scenes of sadistic abuse are presented for our vicarious pleasure, followed by equally sadistic scenes of vengeance against the abuser, in which the thrill of violence is enhanced by the warm glow that comes from seeing evil punished. When the audience breaks into applause while watching an anal rape, you know you’re entering Abu Ghraib territory.

It’s not only the violence that reveals Dragon Tattoo’s skewed moral universe. We’re also repeatedly shown that if the villains are guilty of literally monstrous egotism, the white hats in Larsson-land apparently have their own every-woman-for-herself ethos and feel little responsibility toward their loved ones, their society, or the killers’ past and future victims. Their strange heartlessness goes unremarked and unquestioned, however, because the revenge-fueled Rube Goldberg plot mechanism would fall apart if real people were allowed to intrude.

No wonder everyone’s expecting Dragon Tattoo to be that rarity, a subtitled foreign film that’s a genuine box-office hit. (One shudders to imagine how much more meretricious the imminent American remake will be.) The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, is guaranteed to remain in the art-house ghetto, and not for very long, either.

Mommy dearest: <i>The Girl on the Train</i> stars Emilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve.
Mommy dearest: The Girl on the Train stars Emilie Dequenne and Catherine Deneuve.

Not only is it in French, but (as is director André Téchiné’s wont) it deliberately sacrifices narrative drive to psychosocial observation. This is a movie that lays out a series of events and personalities that may or may not lead anywhere; the job of figuring out the point of it all is left to the audience. This strategy can seem pretentious, or simply annoying. But unlike the usual film that’s “based on a true story” (as this one is), Girl on the Train eschews tidy explanations and instead looks deep into the mystery of why people do what they do. Compared to the neatly wrapped-up bedtime stories even supposedly sophisticated movies so often feel compelled to tell, the open-endedness of Girl on the Train feels refreshingly adult.

Adulthood is a problem for the girl at the center of this movie, Jeanne, who lives with her widowed mother in a Paris suburb and is looking for a job in the desultory way that hints she really doesn’t want to be pushed out on her own. Émilie Dequenne reveals the uncertainty and neediness beneath Jeanne’s placid surface, while Catherine Deneuve puts her natural chill to good use as Louise, Jeanne’s fond but emotionally distant mother. The deliberately meandering plot also includes Jeanne’s boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle), as driven and aggressive as Jeanne is passive, and the Bleistein clan, headed by a distinguished lawyer (Michel Blanc) and about to celebrate the bar mitzvah of their youngest member.

Louise and the lawyer once knew each other, and now she hopes he might give her daughter a job. The Bleisteins’ Jewishness is a non-issue, even for most of the Bleisteins, until suddenly, thanks to a very bad decision of Jeanne’s, it becomes the stuff of national news. Jeanne eventually pays the consequences for what she’s done, but we’re reminded that no punishment was meted out to the politicians and pundits who exploit her misbehavior.

If enjoying The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo requires not thinking too hard about what you’re watching, The Girl on the Train is the sort of film that gets better the more you roll it around in your head. Little moments that might have initially seemed superfluous—scenes of Jeanne staring glumly out the train window or happily rollerblading in the suburban streets, of the day care Louise runs out of her home, of the Bleistein family’s histrionic turmoil—gather force when we ponder them in relation to each other and the film’s larger themes.

This is not a message movie, but embedded in its deliberately low-key story are important ideas about identity, belonging, and the peculiar place the symbolism of Jews and Nazis, suffering and evil, occupy in France’s collective psyche. And, as the cheap tricks of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remind us, everyone else’s, too.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2010

All Issues