Monday, December 6, 2010

Taking command

The film adaptations of the Millenium series which began with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo switched directors for the second installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009), with great success. What is impressive this time is often what is omitted.

Case in point: The film does not end with the usual order-is-restored conclusion typical of the mystery-thriller genre. In fact, the clean-up of the climatic violent sequence has not even begun when the film fades out. Also missing is the scene where everyone sits down and figures out the difference pieces of the story they know fit together and thus explain it all for the audience. If you're not going to take the trouble to keep up, this movie won't help you. Like Lisbeth, you better just go look it up on the Internet.

All of which demonstrates greater trust in the audience than demonstrated in the first installment. Played With Fire has two other elements not found in its predecessor: colors other than gray, including flesh tones, and the dominating presence of Lisbeth as played by Noomi Rapace, who seemed like a guest star in the first film, but here takes command as she should do, given both the strength of the character and Rapace's own strong presence.

Paradoxically, this second film serves as a kind of origin story, although it is chronologically after the events of the first film. I'll spare the details, as this one of those films in which the revelation of information is the principal activity of the plot, interspersed with bouts of violence. None of the violence is as explicit and repellent as in the first film -- but is that a good thing? Shouldn't violence, especially violence against women be repellent? Nonetheless, this time there's a sprinkling of martial arts and gun fu that edges toward more conventional "movie-movie" violence. That "movie" feeling is heightened by the principal thug's resemblance to "Jaws" played by Richard Kiel in the Bond movies.

But the greater professionalism of this entry also binds the top story (the crime to be unraveled) and the underlying story (who and what is Lisbeth and how did she get this way) into a more cohesive fabric than the first film, which seemed at times like two unrelated films. In Dragon Tattoo, the mystery of the missing girl in the Northern village seemed to have little to do with the Lisbeth's disturbing story, and she solves the mystery because it is an interesting job. Here the murders are inextricably bound up in someone's animosity to Lisbeth, and she has a moral duty to find and punish the killer. (Oddly enough, the evidence against Lisbeth's own persecutor, which is set up in this film as though it where something that might be lost or destroyed becomes irrelevant in rather short order. In fact, the entire threat to her shifts in this film, and one wonders if it will survive to Part 3.)

Director Alfredson has a smoother camera style and there is witty and perky cutting by Mattias Morheden. The music, like the earlier installment, is still overstatedly ominous in the Hollywood mode. Over the years I have observed that the use of music -- when and how it is used as well as the actual style of the music -- does more to date a film than any other single element, including the women's hairstyles. Most audiences can look past matters of passing fashion, but a crashing, thumping music score can seriously interfere with the audience's engagement. It is hard to think of a film which suffered badly from having too few or too subtle music cues.

The damaged Lisbeth put me in mind of the neglected girl at the center of The Curse of the Cat People (1944) a strange death-obsessed fantasy film which RKO had ordered up, hoping to get a sequel to the straight-on horror of Cat People.

Young Amy has forged a relationship with his father's deceased former wife, who gives her the loving attention she is missing from her own parents. Naturally, the adults around her treat Irina's appearance as that of an imaginary friend. But she finds another adult, Julia Farren, who encourages Amy's belief in magic and in making connections with the unseen world. Unlike Amy, who sees the dead who are not here, Julia cannot see her own daughter, whom she insists has died and been replaced by an impostor.

There is an enchanting scene with Irena on Christmas Eve, which would be season-appropriate, but finally Amy's father, whom Amy cannot reach emotionally, orders her to stop seeing Irena, and in a haunting scene that I can't embed, but I can link to here, they say farewell. The full palette of the tricks of studio filmmaking are on display here, in all their artificial splendor.

Amy goes to look for her friend one more time and stumbles into the home of Julia and her daughter, and inadvertently heals that family -- but through death, in a scene which could be called by horrific and cathartic. Producer Val Lewton is definitely toying with the boundaries of the horror genre. Amy learns she must make her own path through life and not rely on those who have gone before, and that she must live in the here and now and with her own parents and friends. She begins to take command of her own life by passing through fantasy, just as Lisabeth had to pass through violence.

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