The Girl Who Played with Fire

I knew next to nothing about the Millennium Trilogy before this week. I’m glad I was introduced to this phenomenon in the context of this class as I’m sure it allowed for deeper appreciation of the series and the conversations it has spurred than I would have felt otherwise. Looking at The Girl Who Played with Fire from two distinct angles, placing it in a geopolitical context and discussing its queer potentiality, are generative ways of thinking about how the film operates in the world, especially how it might change perceptions about Sweden on the global stage (for the negative) while inspiring optimism about radical and queer possibilities in unexpected art forms.

Americans and other foreigners perceive Scandinavia as a liberal and forward-thinking region of the world, with its socialist politics and commitment to values such as egalitarianism and secularism. I associate Sweden with impeccable design, minimalist living, a hard work ethic, existentialism, and art that takes itself seriously (Bergman). However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire express concern with a much bleaker underbelly of society. Stockholm is steely, constricting, and gritty in these films. Interior spaces at night are given disproportionate screen time. Sweden is not all airy and bright neoclassical buildings in Stieg Larsson’s estimation, but has unresolved and violent streaks of patriarchy, Nazism, racism, and misogyny festering in dark corners behind its pristine façade. All of these themes, but especially the Vanger family episode reminded me of a Danish movie, The Celebration (1998), that takes on similar issues of sexual abuse and revenge within a dysfunctional aristocratic family. Though very different in style and conception, that film also cracks Scandinavia’s pretty image, and points to scary people and structures that hold power. One could argue that Larsson pushes this a step farther by linking, “family violence to larger systems of political and economic violence and which implies that any resolution to the plot has to seek social justice by connecting the intimate and personal politics of the home to the public and transnational politics of the economy” (Halberstam).

While on the one hand the The Girl Who Played with Fire does harm to the nation’s public image, it also offers glimpses of something beautiful according to Halberstam, who sees the series and its heroine as righteously queer and appealing because she is supposedly more grounded in reality than many of her techno-thriller and action film counterparts. Halberstam sees in the Millennium Trilogy a positive reinterpretation of the genre, which, as we discussed in class, is often very conservative in ideology. It is often about maintaining the status quo, and appeals to an elite male audience who has enough disposable income to develop expertise in technology. According to Halberstam, Lisabeth fights “real” enemies (people who commit the types of ubiquitous sexual crimes that mostly go unreported) rather than imagined ones (such as North Koreans, who probably don’t pose an immediate threat), even if it is in a highly stylized and fantastical manner. This makes Lisbeth a much more political meaningful and useful character than one typically finds in a heteronormative geeked out thriller aimed at young white males.

Munoz’s delightfully non-linear and imaginative ideas about extracting something optimistic from works of art that don’t seem to deal directly with utopia also applies to The Girl Who Played with Fire. Munoz states, “potentiality is a certain mode of nonbeing that is eminent, a thing that is present but not actually existing in the present tense” (9). Though it may seem counterintuitive, Larsson, Oplev, and Alfredson could be expressing their desires for a more honest and safer future through the deeply disturbed and horribly abused Lisbeth and her shocking story. The ideal world isn’t the one shown in these films, but the stories gesture toward a more harmonious and justice-centered world in various ways. The films seem saturated with a belief in something better than the world that Lisbeth inhabits, and her actions point to the possibility of such a world as she attempts to right uncountable wrongs. Perhaps this fictional character’s very existence plays a role in restructuring society and shifting ideas of what could be as she works her way into our historical consciousness and taps into our hope for improvement through displaying atrocities we can hardly believe.

Works Cited

Esteban Munoz, Jose. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

Halberstam, Jack. “The Girl Who Played with Queer Utopia.” Bully Bloggers.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, 2009.

The Girl Who Played with Fire, Daniel Alfredson, 2009.

The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998.


2 thoughts on “The Girl Who Played with Fire

  1. channabach

    Great point about the contrast the films seem to present to the dominant image of Sweden as egalitarian, streamlined, and progressive (or at least liberal).

    I’m really intrigued by your analysis of the film’s gesture towards a “more harmonious and justice-centered world.” You put this beautifully when you write “The films seem saturated with a belief in something better than the world that Lisbeth inhabits, and her actions point to the possibility of such a world as she attempts to right uncountable wrongs.” I’m curious how we might expand this strategy, how it may (or may not) work in other films or media productions. How might we make and respond to media that foregrounds this utopic possibility?

    This post falls a bit short of the required word count for this assignment. For future assignments, make sure to follow all directions and complete all requirements to avoid losing points.

    Overall, wonderful job on this post.

  2. D. Hewitt

    The Millennium Trilogy is one of my favorites, so I’m glad that you enjoyed it, too!

    I agree with channabach that you make a great point about how the film contrasts the conventional image we all associate with Sweden. My best friend, a GSWS major at Penn, studied abroad in Stockholm last semester and hails the country as progressive and sex-positive. Clearly, The Girl Who Played With Fire illustrates an alternative image of the country—one that an average person may not discover unless they delved beneath the surface. That alternative image is very alive and well. In fact, Larsson investigated the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden and would not marry his significant other out of fear that she would be in harms way. I think that it’s very necessary to address these harsh realities of Sweden—of society. How else can we truly advance as a society unless we address the problems we face head-on?

    I also agree with you that it “offers glimpses of something beautiful” because Lisbeth is “more grounded in reality than many of her techno-thriller and action film counterparts.” At the same time, you are also correct when you say the “films seem saturated with a belief in something better than the world that Lisbeth inhabits.” Throughout the trilogy, despite the problems that the protagonists face, there is always an underpinning optimism that is wishful for a better tomorrow. While the majority of characters are prone to thinking that they can solve the problems they face, Lisbeth is realistic that it will take time and determination to cure the cancers that plague society.

    All in all, great job. I’m impressed!

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