Tag Archives: Natalie Portman

Oh, the Oscars . . .

Every year, I settle in to watch the Academy Awards show, and every year, I come away disappointed. Last night’s show promised something a little different—young co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco were supposed to bring verve and energy to a show that continually runs out of steam well before the finish line. If it’s not going to be distinguished and elegant, amidst jokes at industry-insiders’ expense (which a short clip shown last night of Bob Hope hosting, decades ago, evinced), then it should at least move quickly through the night’s requisites, handing out the awards with a minimum of fuss and bother.

Neither elegant nor bother-free, the 2011 awards ceremony telecast seemed instead particularly forced and wooden. Franco and Hathaway are terrific actors (he was nominated this year as Best Actor for 127 Hours); the opening gambit filmed the two moving Inception-style through Alec Baldwin’s dreams as a way to introduce the 10 films nominated for Best Picture awards. Franco and Hathaway rose to the occasion of this minor comedy, gamely playing for laughs.

But once they appeared live at the Kodak Theatre, their patter seemed unusually dull and plastic.Franco stood with his hands crossed below his waist for most of the night, his brow frowning, and his eyes squinted, as though, looking out at the over-dressed audience, he wondered what in the world he’d gotten himself into.

Hathaway was adorable and earnest, but worked almost too hard to maintain the youthful energy the show’s producers desperately courted. Her sycophantic hosannas to various colleagues—her personal “moment” introducing Sandra Bullock, her infatuated announcement of Stephen Spielberg’s appearance—seemed to brook the unspoken decorum of the event, in which only the audience at home is supposed to be impressed by celebrity. Everyone on stage is meant to take stardom in stride. Something about Hathaway’s fawning—or the writers’ and producers’ choice to have her do so—seemed pushed, false, and wrong.

Trotting 90+-year-old Kirk Douglas out to announce the Best Supporting Actress award first thing in the evening proved a torturous exercise for the nominated performers and for the audience. The once-glamorous movie star now uses a cane, and a stroke distorted his face and his speech. But the guy still loves the limelight. He milked lousy jokes that had him flirting shamelessly with the five women nominees like an old satyric goat.

Even once he opened the envelope to announce the winner, Douglas interrupted himself twice to extend the suspense and his own moment in the spotlight. An Oscar handler finally had to pull the guy from view. When Melissa Leo won the award (for The Fighter), their cringe-worthy mugging provoked only embarrassment. As they walked off together, she took his cane and pretended to hobble along beside him.

Leo’s fabricated surprise and wonder at her win was as unseemly as Douglas’s lecherous antics, given that everyone watching knew that she had taken out “for your consideration” ads on her own behalf in the trade press. For an actor who does smart work in film (Frozen River, as well as The Fighter) and television (Homicide: Life on the Streets), Leo’s silly acceptance speech proved disappointing. The post-ceremony press makes much of her “dropping the F-bomb,” a curse that was instantly censored by the broadcast’s five-second delay. But aside from the indecorous swear word, she said nothing of substance and appeared lightweight and insincere.

In fact, most of the acceptance speeches fell short of an already low standard. I wondered as I do most years by midnight of the awards ceremony telecast why in the world I continue watching. It occurred to me that seeing people accept their awards on live tv offers the possibility for spontaneity and insight. I always hope someone will use their momentary platform to say something important to the millions of people watching and listening. That so few of these powerful stars take advantage of their time on stage seems shameful.

Only Charles Ferguson, who won the Best Documentary award for Inside Job, a film about the Wall Street scandal, used his speech incisively. He castigated the government for bringing to justice not one of the corporate executives who perpetrated the financial fraud. A few award winners referred obliquely to their support for the industry’s unions, gesturing to the current anti-union government activism in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

But even the politically-minded screenwriter Aaron Sorkin restrained himself when he accepted his award for adapting The Social Network. A few winners nodded to same-sex partners. The one female and two male sound editors who jointly won for their work on Inception thanked their “three wives,” and one of the producers of The King’s Speech thanked his boyfriend.

These were welcome alternatives, given the night-long litany of people thanking opposite-sex husbands, wives, and children. Why in the world do we need to hear these personal acknowledgements? Or even, for that matter, the long lists of “teams” who promote these people to their colleagues and peers? Those moments reek of personal and professional self-congratulatory normativity.

Colin Firth (Best Actor for The King’s Speech) and Natalie Portman (Best Actress for The Black Swan) came away with more of their dignity intact, simply because they seem more innately intelligent than some of their fellow celebrities, and offered more circumspect and apparently heart-felt (even humble) remarks.

No surprises pumped adrenaline into the evening. In fact, the show moved sluggishly and became boring only a few commercial breaks into the night. Even the visuals were cheesy. The stage was dressed like some sort of space capsule, with the presenters on its wide outer edges and film clips projected far upstage in its nose. The downstage apron where stars presented and accepted the awards looked like the floor of a pinball machine, bedecked in meaningless, distracting silver patterns.

Lighting in a strangely red, yellow, and orange color palette flattered no one, which only underlined how uncomfortable everyone onstage looked. The weird camera angles the producers chose during the acceptance speeches presented the winners in profile and sometimes from behind, which did nothing to add visual pizazz or appeal to the screen.

Perhaps most outrageous was the near total absence of people of color presenting and accepting awards. Halle Berry offered a special memorial to Lena Horne, and Jennifer Hudson, looking svelte but inexplicably startled, presented the Best Song award. Morgan Freeman appeared in the Franco-Hathaway opening film number. But that was pretty much it for people of color throughout the evening.

The evening’s representation of gender wasn’t much better. Douglas was allowed to cavort unimpeded while the frustrated Best Supporting Actress nominees were supposed to act charmed by his narcissism. Instead, the moment diminished the importance of their work. Annette Bening, a woman in her 50s who’s made a career of terrific, thoughtfully crafted character parts, lost to a woman who’s not yet 30. Portman is also a wonderful actress, but the histrionics of her role in The Black Swan were in a different register than Bening’s careful, nuanced, mutable reactions as a lesbian cuckolded when her long-term partner has sex with their children’s sperm donor.

Portman’s intensive dance training and her resulting loss of body fat, coupled with a role that required her character to mutilate herself and go insane insured that the young woman was directed to be and to play spectacle. Bening played heart, mind, and soul. But when it comes to women, spectacle always seems to win.

At the evening’s end, after the predictable Best Picture win for The King’s Speech, a chorus of fifth graders from a public school in Staten Island swarmed the stage to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The multi-racial kids were cute and lively, and even as they over-acted out the song’s words, they struck a sincere, happy note in the telecast’s final moments. Maybe they should do the whole show next year.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Black Swan

Natalie Portman deftly defies the genre conventions of what would otherwise be a predictable, unsettling melodrama about an unhinged ballet dancer who goes not so quietly crazy just as her career takes off. Because of Portman’s uncanny empathy for her character, the over-the-top camera angles and story lines of Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan aren’t quite as irritating as they might be without a lead actor who brings such nuanced insight and intuition to the role.

Portman’s plays Nina, an utterly, single-mindedly devoted ballerina with a prestigious New York City ballet company. Her technique is perfect but she lacks the requisite passion for the leading roles. The company’s artistic director, a French-accented martinet named “Thomas” (but pronounced “Tomah”), rewards Nina by casting her as the white and the black swan in his “avant-garde” production of Swan Lake, but only after he attacks her sexually and she bites his lips defending herself in response.

One of the film’s most interesting insights is into the twisted relationship between male ballet impresarios and their female dancers. Vincent Cassel plays Thomas with a cruel sneer in his upper lip and a leer in his eyes as he challenges Nina to give up her quest for perfection so that she might convincingly portray the evil and seductive Black Swan with the wild abandon he conceives for the role. That he uses his own body against hers to force her to find her strength is part of what Aronofsky’s film wants to critique, but also partly what makes watching it uncomfortable. Thomas doesn’t even pretend there’s any other way to “get” the performance he wants from his star but to sexually humiliate her publicly and to push her physical boundaries privately. Nina wants the role so badly she’ll do anything to get it and then keep it, even as she becomes more and more deranged.As her relationship with Thomas gets more and more entwined, she begins to suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, idealizing and even identifying with Thomas and his mercurial cruelty.

Haunting the proceedings as a cautionary object lesson is Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging (that is, over 30), once-glorious star of the company who’s forced into retirement so that Nina can take her place. All the dancers want to be Beth; when Nina sneaks into the older woman’s dressing room before her star casting is announced, she steals Beth’s lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, and a letter opener, totemic objects that Nina carries as talismans toward her own success.

But Beth’s precipitous tumble from the top to the bottom turns ugly when she won’t go gracefully into retirement. Instead, she causes a scene at a benefit party and then throws herself into New York City traffic, landing in a lonely hospital room where she languishes with ugly, disfiguring and debilitating scars. She sits in a wheelchair, her head canted down at a painful angle as she contemplates the cruelties of fate. Sadly, Ryder’s shrewish portrayal of the vanquished star mirrors too closely the details of her own career, and her one-dimensional, caricatured acting doesn’t help redeem her performance or the character. Nina, fascinated by the woman she’s replacing, visits Beth in her hospital room as some sort of weird penance for precipitating the star’s fate, but the visits aren’t instructive so much as increasingly macabre and violent as Nina’s reality begins to shatter.

Aronofsky signals his vision of his own leading lady with heavy-handed shots of Portman fragmented and multiplied by the various mirrors in which her life is continually reflected. In the claustrophobic apartment she shares with her equally insane mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a mirror by the front door is cut into pie-shaped wedges that breaks Nina’s image into pieces, and the three-sided mirror in which she practices and obsessively laces and re-laces her toe shoes ensures that even at home, she’s always onstage.

Nina’s mother, it seems, was a corps member herself before she stopped dancing to raise Nina. No father is evident, just the suffocating co-dependency of two women who represent different generations of the same dream. Erica both wants Nina to succeed and desperately needs her to fail, so that her daughter will cling to her, imprisoned in the child-like state Erica insists on preserving.Nina’s bedroom is lined with rows of white and pink stuffed animals that stare down at her bed, and every night, she goes to sleep with the tinny music box sounds of “Swan Lake” that her mother sets in motion to soothe her. Erica intrudes on Nina’s privacy, checking the ever-worsening rash that blooms across her daughter’s back, chiding her for mutilating herself and at the same time, helping Nina hide her wounds. When Nina is cast in the lead role in Swan Lake, Erica doesn’t set out to sabotage her success, but willingly abets Nina’s fast downward spiral when it begins.

The real agent of Nina’s downfall is the woman who might otherwise be her savior. Lily (a stunning Mila Kunis) arrives in the company from LA full of self-confident sexuality and the distinctly unballet-like languor of the west coast. Nina catches a glimpse of her first on a subway, distracted from her own image in its Plexiglas windows by Lily’s hair and the headphones she wears. Lily makes her first appearance at the studio by banging open and closed the door while Nina is dancing, causing her to stumble in her audition for Swan Lake. But Lily’s laxity proves a refreshing counter-balance to a ballet world in which young women are wound tight, can’t eat, throw up what they do get down, and like Nina, are so disciplined to be perfect that they have no lives outside their dancing.

Lily, the film’s own black swan, loves sensuality and sexuality in equal measure. After she and Nina get off to a rocky start, Lily visits Nina at home, shocking both her and Erica with her brashness.Undone by Erica’s haranguing, Nina impulsively goes to a bar with Lily, where she’s persuaded to take a disinhibiting drug that Lily insists will just relax her and only last for two hours, “most.”Tempted by her desire to be free of her mother, and by Thomas’s insistence that she “touch herself” as homework to help her loosen up, Nina lets Lily drug her cocktail and gets very uninhibited indeed.

The two women flirt with men who are deeply disinterested in ballet—to Nina’s shock, since the art forms her entire world—then dance together wildly in a scene shot in pink light and edited frenetically to represent Nina’s descent into drug-induced ecstasy. The evening ends when Lily makes a pass at Nina in a taxi, and Nina brings her home, to the shock and dismay of Erica, who tries to batter down her bedroom door while the two young women have very wild, hot, and explicit sex.

The sex scene is the film’s pivot point, as it demonstrates how much Nina represses for her art, and how passionate indeed she can be. High as a kite, Nina won’t stand for her mother’s interdictions, and pulls Lily into her bedroom, where they rip off one another’s clothes and practically swallow each other’s tongues. Aronofsky films and edits this scene, too, with close-ups of body parts and quick jump cuts that heighten the intensity, until he finally focuses in on Nina’s sexual awakening under Lily’s ministrations. The scene reveals that other side of the carefully controlled artist is a young woman of painful depth and desire, who revels in just the kind of passion Thomas has been so eager to induce.

But the next morning, things go quickly awry. Lily is gone, but the pole Nina uses to keep her bedroom door propped closed hasn’t been disturbed. Nina wakes hung-over and late for rehearsal, where she finds Lily already in costume, performing in her role. Immediately, Lily becomes a palpable threat to Nina’s ascendancy, and when Nina refers to their evening together, Lily accuses her of having a “lezzie wet dream,” and denies that anything happened. From there, Nina’s sanity teeters ever closer to the brink, and Aronofsky plays even more fast and loose with what’s real for her and what’s real for us.

From the film’s beginning, moments that seem true are suddenly proven false. In the bathroom of the ballet benefit party, Nina’s ragged cuticles begin to bleed and she can’t get them to stop, eventually peeling a three-inch strip of flesh from her finger. But when she’s interrupted by, as it happens, Lily knocking on the door, Nina looks down to see her finger miraculously healed. This girl bleeds terribly—her toenails break from dancing on them, her back bleeds from scratching, and blood continually reddens the water in which she bathes and washes. But we’re never sure if her wounds are real, and neither, it seems, is Nina.

[Spoiler alert.] In fact, in the film’s climactic scene, Nina seems to kill Lily in a violent rage, shattering her dressing room’s full-length mirror with her rival’s head and then dragging her body onto the cold tile of her bathroom floor. When Lily’s blood seeps under the door, Nina covers it with a towel and goes off to triumphantly perform the second act of Swan Lake, where she nails her performance as the black swan with galvanizing passion and rage, murderous in her seductress’s make-up.

But when she returns to her dressing room to dress for the ballet’s third and final act, Lily comes knocking on her door to compliment Nina’s performance. The body in the bathroom is gone and so is the blood. Nina redresses herself in her white swan costume, but as she pulls on her white feathers, she finds in her own abdomen the seeping red wound she thought she’d inflicted in Lily’s.With morbid fascination and a strange glint of triumph, she retracts the shard of broken mirror she seemed to have used to kill her enemy.

As she returns to the stage to finish the ballet exultantly, we’re not sure if this, too, is a hallucination. The white swan falls to her death and Nina falls to the mattress that catches her behind the set, where her fellow dancers and Thomas surround her, extolling her glory and her talent. He calls her “little princess,” the affectionate but diminishing name he once used for Beth (just as Lily predicted he would), then notices with dismay that her white costume is marred by a spreading stain of very red blood. But as she lies there, apparently dying, Nina says both “I was perfect” and “I felt it,” fulfilling her own expectations and Thomas’s wish.

In Aronofsky’s vision, she’s also finally become a woman, her technical perfection infused with the reckless passion of adulthood and her cocoon-like innocence stained with the menstrual-like blood of her masochistic wound. The swan in the story dies, and while it’s not clear if Nina survives or not, we’re supposed to think she’s at the very least killed off the part of herself that held her too-adult passion and desire at bay.

I suppose Aronofsky also wants us to consider the depravity of those who give themselves to an art that gives so little in return. The rewards, The Black Swan suggests, are fleeting, ephemeral evenings of triumph and applause, which fades too quickly as ballet dancers inevitably age. As my film-going companion, Stacy, pointed out, adoring fans are faceless and strangely unrepresented in the film. Nina peeks out at the audience before she performs, but it’s really the adoration of her colleagues that she craves and finally achieves when they surround her fallen body at the film’s end.

Aronofsky indicts the cruelty through which Thomas realizes his vision of Swan Lake by manipulating the already unstable Nina, but the writer-director’s camera also enjoys a bit too much how the story makes Nina suffer, and happily represents her as a martyr to her art.

Thriller conventions bring The Black Swan its rather perverse excitement, as Aronofsky keeps the viewer off balance, like Nina, through quick confusing cuts to a murky woman who keeps turning up in the troubled young woman’s fantasy/reality. When Nina’s masturbating, following Thomas’s instructions to “loosen up,” nearly at climax she turns her head and sees another woman sitting on the chair in her bedroom, watching her. The cut happens so quickly, it’s not clear if the woman is Erica, the mother, or another young woman whose face and figure recurs in Nina’s dreams/fantasies, who may or may not be a younger Erica or some other Nina-style doppelganger. I kept expecting some previous trauma that would explain Nina’s insanity, but Aronofsky never delivers a back-story to illuminate her strange psychology. That choice heightens the film’s suggestion that it’s her single-minded dedication to art—encouraged by her similarly obsessed mother—that’s driven Nina mad.

Barbara Hershey is convincing as the over-bearing, bitter mother who watches her daughter achieve the career she always wanted. Erica lives through Nina and resents her deeply, calling incessantly on Nina’s cellphone, which displays “MOM” in insistent capital letters as the phone bleats plaintively. Erica doesn’t seem to be employed, but instead sits alone in a small room in their apartment (how these two afford a three-bedroom flat in Manhattan is never explained), creating Munch-like paintings of her own (or is it Nina’s?) face, images that seem to scream and follow Nina with their eyes when she peeks into the room. Erica and Nina’s bond is both incestuous and ambivalent, as they’re attracted and repulsed by everything they mean to one another.

Nina’s fantasy hook-up with Lily also seems to sublimate her strange push-pull relationship with Erica, while at the same time, to represent the entirely incestuous, homosocial, female-dominated world of ballet. Strangely, though, it’s also a heterosexual world, in Aronofsky’s conception. Lily enflames Nina’s jealousy during a performance when she flirts with the callous guy who’s dancing the white swan’s romantic object. The only obvious gay man in this world is the accompanist, who finally slams the lid on his piano after hours of solo rehearsing with Nina, telling her superciliously that he has a life (she, clearly, doesn’t) and leaving her in the dark as the building’s lights shut down.

What, finally, to make of The Black Swan? Aronofsky has created an absorbing, if sometimes repellent, Grand Guignol of a film about artistic cruelty and excess, one that might be laughable if the leading performances (Portman, Kunis, Cassel, and Hershey, especially) weren’t so heart-felt, layered, and persuasive. Portman’s shattered poise, shaky vulnerability, masterful artistry, and desperate desire for both success and real connection make Nina a character who’s difficult to wrest your eyes from. Even as Aronofsky dismantles the foundation of her world and her sanity, and keeps the viewer equally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, Portman holds us squarely on Nina’s side, hoping she’ll be victorious against all the forces lined up against her.

Too bad that Nina’s victory requires a self-mutilation so extreme, she can only succeed by succumbing to her own death. That’s a message that’s not good for the girls.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m late to the bandwagon of Stieg Larrson, but I can see why so many people are reading this translated Swedish thriller trilogy. I just finished the first novel, I’m 50 pages into The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second, and I’ve been promised a lend on the third.

Part of the appeal is that Larrson respects his reader’s intelligence and creates characters that are intellectually, as well as politically and sexually, motivated. Mikael Blomkvist, the crusading journalist and editor of a scrappy investigative magazine called Millennium, is one of genre fiction’s more appealing heroes, in part because his masculinity is surprisingly unconventional. I usually read mysteries or thrillers with women gumshoes or protagonists, because I find the hardboiled masculine variety predictable and sometimes offensive.

But Blomkvist is compromised from the start of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as he’s been indicted and sentenced to prison for libeling a powerful industrialist named Wennerstrom. When we first meet him, then, he’s already flawed, although his journey follows the archetypal trajectory of the wronged hero who’s vindicated after he survives a series of trials that prove his righteousness. I’m not spoiling anything with this description—this is one of the rules of the genre, and watching it play out with so many relatively progressive (politically) twists is what makes this kind of novel so pleasurable and compelling.

Blomkvist restores himself to favor in the course of a labyrinthine plot that takes him north of Stockholm to a small, frozen island in the Norrland where he’s persuaded to spend a year in the employ of another powerful corporate mogul, the worthy Henrik Vanger. In his declining years, the melancholy elderly man is desperate to solve the mystery of his niece Harriet’s disappearance from the island 40-odd years earlier.

Hedeby Island’s population teems with Vangers, a family dynasty with plenty of skeletons rattling in terribly sordid closets. Because Henrik Vanger doesn’t want his family to know that he’s hired Blomkvist to continue investigating the unsolved mystery of what most presume is Harriet’s murder (though her body was never found), Henrik assigns Blomkvist to write the older man’s biography as a cover. As the shrewd journalist combs through the family patriarch’s extensive archive of materials on Harriet’s disappearance, Blomkvist pieces together a story about perversion and corruption that Larrson makes both plausible and harrowing.

Much of the book describes Blomkvist poring over evidence and interviewing likely suspects or people whose lives in one way or another touched Harriet’s before she disappeared in 1966. Research and interviews are staple tools of the mystery/thriller genre, but Blomkvist’s character is set off by the fact that his stock in trade is journalism, rather than police or detective work, which gives him a slightly different cast from the genre’s typical heroes. Blomkvist’s motives start as personal; Vanger promises him that if he gets to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance, he has information about Blomkvist’s nemesis, Wennerstrom, which will prove Blomkvist’s innocence.

But before that happens, Blomkvist actually does his time in jail, even if it seems a very cushy, decidedly white collar stint in the slammer, during which Blomkvist continues his investigation for Vanger examining files and photographs in between his mandatory work assignments and exercise.

And before he’s given the carrot Vanger promises, Blomkvist finds himself committing to his investigation for more personal reasons. He begins a casual affair with another one of Vanger’s nieces, Cecilia, whose father is a Nazi sympathizer, along with at least one of his other brothers. Cecilia proves one of the book’s several interesting women characters, and one of the three with whom Blomkvist has sex through the story.

Cecilia is in her mid-50s (about 10 years older than Blomkvist), long divorced, admits that she hasn’t had sex in some time, and chooses to seduce Blomkvist within minutes of meeting him. But because she’s wary of emotional involvement, and because sex seems to send her into frenzies completely incompatible with her more reserved daily emotional exterior, she keeps reeling him in only to cut bait and run.

The “man on a yo-yo” theme is typical of Blomkvist’s relationships with the women inDragon Tattoo, a refreshing change for a genre in which the heroes are more typically men who phone in their relationships with women, seeking bed companions on their own terms and leaving the women to wait for their call. Larsson’s hero rarely passes up a sexual opportunity, but I don’t believe he ever actually initiates one.

Blomkvist’s long-term occasional sexual companion is also his smart, competent business partner, Erika Berger, a woman he’s known since they were both young journalists. Berger is married to another man. Gregor, Erika’s husband, knows all about her relationship with Blomkvist—the arrangement seems to suit everyone just fine. Erika and Blomkvist truly love one another, and their work together onMillennium, the political muck-raking magazine they own and co-edit, sets off intellectual and political sparks that fuels their sexual commitment.

That they aren’t married to one another, however, is a nice touch; that no one minds their unusual arrangement is also kind of cool. Erika walks in on Blomkvist with other women several times throughout the story, and while she’s always embarrassed at what she’s interrupted, she’s never jealous or angry. As usual, in Dragon Tattoo, the women in his life control the enactment of Blomkvist’s desire. And none of them are eager to haul him down the aisle.

To call his third sexual partner, the series co-anchor Lizbeth Salander, Blomkvist’s side-kick would diminish her importance to the story and its action and fail to describe her relevance and appeal. The genre’s conventions typically require one hero or heroine who, although he or she might frequent likely people for support or companionship, typically goes it alone to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer.In Dragon Tattoo, Larsson writes Blomkvist and Salander as an odd-couple who complement one another and contribute equally to the resolution of the plot—in fact, they simultaneously but separately realize the villain’s identity.

The two don’t actually team up until halfway into the story, although Larsson keeps their activities on parallel tracks until they intersect. Salander, a brilliant computer hacker, works freelance for a security firm and is assigned to background-check Blomkvist by Henrik Vanger’s lawyer before the old man hires him to find Harriet. In the course of investigating the journalist, Salander comes to her own conclusions about the Wennerstrom affair, which prove relevant as the story unfolds.

But it’s only when Blomkvist realizes he’s been investigated and reads her report that he seeks Salander out and proposes that she work with him. And it’s only because her work is so extensive and impressive—even if she’s uncovered things about him that he knows she obtained by illegally hacking into his computer—that he pursues her as a work partner. Their relationship, in other words, is professional and mutually admiring; they’re both whip smart, driven, curious, and skilled.

Salander is one of the most compelling, unusual characters I’ve come across in genre fiction. She’s a young woman with her own mysterious back-story, one that Larsson hasn’t fully revealed by the end of Dragon Tattoo. She’s a ward of the state, legally determined incompetent to govern her own affairs, even though she’s by now twenty-five-years-old. Her relationship with her new guardian, a slimy lawyer named Bjurman, taps into old traumas, as he tries to manipulate her and wield his state-derived power over her ugly in ways she can’t accommodate. How Salander gets her revenge is one of the book’s most satisfying—and surprisingly feminist—chapters.

In fact, to complement Blomkvist’s equitable way with women, the unusual Salander is the book’s feminist heroine. She’s young and troubled, but she’s enormously smart and wily. Her photographic memory and quick curiosity makes her a gifted investigator, but her social awkwardness, which clearly stems from her dark personal history, keeps her an iconoclastic loner.

She lives in a messy hovel, dependent on Bjurman to dole out her finances; she chooses her sexual partners based on fleeting desires for physical connection, with little regard for emotional commitment, which she assiduously avoids; she reveals nothing of her inner life (Larsson consistently describes her eyes and demeanor as “expressionless”); and she’s particularly wary of men, even as she chooses them (as well as the occasional woman) as sexual partners.

When she and Blomkvist become lovers, it’s Salander who seduces him (in a typical mystery with a male hero, this would inevitably be vice versa). And although he protests that co-workers shouldn’t sleep together, she points out that he and Berger have an on-going affair that doesn’t seem to hamper their professional relationship.But once Blomkvist and Salander have sex, and even though they live together in the small cottage Vanger provides for their work on Hedeby Island, they don’t adopt the conventional routines of coupledom.

She keeps her own counsel, and bristles when Blomkvist tries to draw her out about her past (and even when he compliments her on her brilliance, which she thinks makes her a freak). She retains her right to be enigmatic and antisocial, often refusing to answer Blomkvist’s questions and leaving town without a word, avoiding her cell phone to prevent being tracked down. Salander is a cipher, even to the reader—through the first novel, we never find out the root of her exceedingly guarded relationship to her own life.

That mystery makes her exceptionally compelling, alongside her prodigious intelligence and commanding savvy. She dons leather chaps to ride her motorbike; she drinks heavily when appropriate, and smokes cigarettes freely; she’s hedonistic in unusual, fascinating ways. Salander understands, as the evidence unfolds, that the seamy underside of the Vanger empire is built on a profound hatred of women—she diagnoses and explicitly names misogyny in ways rarely seen in a genre that’s famous for building its plots on the backs of exploited women.

But at the same time, for reasons Larsson doesn’t fully describe, she’s deemed “incompetent” by the state, has been institutionalized for too much of her life, and is now controlled by a corrupt guardian who exercises more power over her affairs than any theoretically free person should be forced to withstand. Salander’s contradictions and the character’s ambiguities propel the narrative as much as the central plot.

I’ll avoid spoilers here, but suffice it to say that many of the book’s crises and resolutions are among the best I’ve read in the genre, and twist the typical gender politics in feminist ways. Watch for Lizbeth’s revenge over Bjurman, which enacts a kind of feminist fantasy; watch for the scene in which the villain is revealed and entraps one of the two protagonists, forcing the other to the rescue; and watch for continuing twists and turns, as one portion of the mystery is solved only to propel you into another, as each of the plot’s strands click together by the end. Even the resolution provides a kind of feminist triumph, with smart, emotionally cool new characters appearing to vindicate the proceedings.

I’ll risk one spoiler to lodge my only complaint: That Lisbeth Salander would find herself in love with Blomkvist by the book’s end seems completely out of character.Without understanding her life story, Larsson doesn’t give us enough reasons to believe that she’d allow herself the luxury of such emotion, even though he presents her feelings as a surprise even to herself. Although now that I’ve started the second book, it seems her realization could have been a plot device to set in motion The Girl Who Played with Fire, at the end of Dragon Tattoo, her however uncomfortable admission of love cheapens a relationship in which Salander has been refreshingly unsentimental and in control.

That said, I’m hooked enough to continue into The Girl Who Played with Fire, and to give Larsson the benefit of the doubt.

A Swedish film version of the first book has been released, which I’m eager to see, and press speculation circulates about casting for the English-language film. I’ve heard Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart both mentioned for the Salander role, among other young actors. Stewart’s more sinewy frame and her sulking, emotionally guarded sexuality makes her my pick for the role.

In another world, Salander would be played by Shane, from The L Word. I don’t think Kate Moenning, the actor who played the hard-living, non-monogamous lesbian hair stylist character, is up to the task, but the look would certainly work.

A girl can dream. But in the meantime, I’m going to burrow back into The Girl Who Played with Fire.

The Feminist Spectator

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