Monday, February 21, 2011

A Performance in Parts...

There was a lot of hoopla made over ‘Man Som Hatar Kvinnor’ this year, and last for that matter.  Granted, a lot of the publicity and obsessing centered on the unfortunate demise of the novel’s author; Stieg Larsson.  Still, on its own, the films have become an odd phenomenon, becoming strangely mainstream.  I say ‘strangely’ because this is a foreign language film, and mainstream success rarely happens for films with subtitles. 

At the core of the success is rookie actress Noomi Rapace, although calling her a rookie now seems almost insulting.

Garnering serious respect and accolades for her riveting ‘three part’ performance, Noomi Rapace is certainly becoming a household name, even here in America (not only was she nominated for the BAFTA, BFCA and Satellite Award, which she WON, but she was also handed nominations and some wins with critics bodies and has landed a slew of upcoming features, including the sequel to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes reboot).  I have heard some comment on her performance with a mixed bag of admiration and hesitation, and I understand that for the performance is really one I find hard to truly describe.  The fact remains that it is wholly dependant on each layer, layers that are presented throughout the development of the entire trilogy, and so appreciating her performance doesn’t come until one sees it in its entirety.

Lisbeth Salander is an interesting specimen.  I have yet to read the novels (I recently ordered them all from Amazon and so I will be diving in soon) and so I may not have a correct or at least a full understanding of her many layers based on the film adaptations liberties (assuming there are some).  Still, from what is presented to us on the big screen, her personality is truly three dimensional, even if it takes time to establish those dimensions.  The idea of a woman guarding a hurt-filled past with a rough exterior is not uncommon in film today.  In fact, it almost feels clichéd to a certain degree; and I must admit that the first stills I saw of Rapace in full on S&M gear struck me as a total stereotype and somewhat of a caricature at that.  I was not impressed and I was certainly anticipating something the complete opposite of what I got. 

I think maybe that is where Rapace’s performance strikes its first controversial blow; in the softness with which she renders Salander’s ‘edge’. 

In ‘Man Som Hatar Kvinnor’, the first installment in the series, we are introduced to Salander in a very direct manner.  She speaks coldly and firmly and with purpose.  I remember that it almost came across rehearsed, as if she was reading off a teleprompter.  It felt manipulated, far from natural.  She was putting on airs that she was this tough girl, but I didn’t believe her.  My initial thoughts were that the hype was undeserved. 

Even as the film progressed I found myself questioning where she was going with the character.  She came across progressively one-note and I felt as if her emotional resonance was nearly non-existent.  Even when she is assaulted (for the first time) by her ‘guardian’, she reacts with a sense of apathy.  There are no cracks in her demeanor.  And then, something started to change.  Within the horrific moment of her rape, she bleeds with such ferocious vulnerability that you begin to see the woman behind the façade.  She breaks down.  In a complete 180, when she returns to exact her revenge on her rapist, there is a light in her eyes that reads through her expressionless face.  Instead of coming across vacant and robotic, she came across lost in her own skin.

After meeting Blomkvist and entering his investigation, Salander almost seems to drop the cold exterior altogether, donning a much softer tone.  As she loses herself in her work you can see an excitement (self gratification?) that comes from uncovering the truth.  This is what really took me for a loop.  It was such a drastic change from the expected that I started to think that Rapace just wasn’t ‘going there’.  She wasn’t taking the performance or the character to the level it needed to be taken in order to be taken seriously.  By the time I had finally gotten around to seeing the film, I had gotten used to the idea of Salander being this no-nonsense badass, and instead she appeared to be a poser.  On top of that, she stripped herself of the whole emo look while lounging in the comforts of her home or alongside Blomkvist, and the midnight romping that took place between the two seemed out of place and fantastical (isn’t she a lesbian?). 

As the film drew to a close we are brought back to the hard edges of Lisbeth as she uncovers the truth behind a sadistic killer and, in a remarkable sequence of emotional flickering, she watches him die.  Again, I was brought back to the revenge against her rapist and the emotional sterilizing of her facial features that were betrayed by that spark in her eyes. 

I was so confused. 

Who was this woman?

With the second installment, ‘Flickan som Lekte med Elden’, the best thing that can be said for the character of Lisbeth Salander is that she is given room to reestablish her rough edges with the distancing of Blomkvist, whilst still incorporating the softness that made her more than one or even two dimensional.  In this second film, her character begins to expand texturally.  We see her outside of her emo persona, understanding that it is truly a façade and not a true part of her, and with the expansion of her back-story we are given better insight into the actorly choices that Rapace made with the character.  In fact, the parts of the character that made less sense in the first installment start to become realistic to us as we get to know the character.  It is the films climax that really allows the audience to get inside Salander, watching her confront her father and watching the same guiltless hatred well up (as it did in the aforementioned scenes in the first film), this time with the noticeable signs of pain.

But, for me at least, the real body of Noomi’s work can be seen in the trilogy’s conclusion, ‘Luftslottet som Sprängdes’.  Here, with Lisbeth Salander mainly confined to the hospital bed, Rapace chips away at the layers of guarded pain and suffering to truly develop the woman underneath that tattoo.  Learning to trust and understand her purpose, and seeing the light at the end of that long tunnel, Salander hatches from her cocoon and becomes a real woman.  She is still on edge, but it is softened by an understanding on her part of where she is in life. 

You can see the real Lisbeth fighting to get out of the faux Lisbeth.

As much as she developed while lying almost motionless in a bed, the real transformation came while sitting across from the man she reviled.  In the court proceedings, we see Lisbeth as she fights for her retribution, this time in a manner that is foreign to her.  Convinced that the law is the furthest thing from her friend, this 180 is just what was needed to atone for the wrongs committed against her.  Having her problems finally solved, not at the hands of a criminal’s revenge but with the swift justice of the very organization that instigated the hurt she felt her whole life, we watch her face soften in a complete way.  That sideways smirk when she realizes that it is over and that she was vindicated in the fullest sense, it is belated yet beautifully rendered with an uncontrollable happiness that she fights to control.

The way she removes herself from Blomkvist is also brilliantly played, because we can see that faux apathy creeping up on Salander as she resorts to her former way of dealing with life.  We see that the end of her problems did not undo that damage created, but when face to face with the man who campaigned against all odds to clear her name, we see the want in her eyes.  She wants to let him in, to really let go of everything and LET HIM IN; but she can’t.

Not yet.

By the time the three films are finished, the character of Lisbeth Salander feels like something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.  On it’s own, these films don’t really flesh out who she is, but as a whole they give us something spectacular; and Noomi Rapace should be congratulated for emptying herself so readily into this role. 

I’ve mentioned this to friends, and it pains me to say this, but I cannot find room to nominate Noomi in my personal ‘Fisti’ awards for her work in these films.  Being that the films are separate and regarded as separate films, I don’t feel the performance segregated from its counterparts is strong enough.  Had the films been released as a 6 hour film all its own, I would hand her the win in nearly any film year this past decade.

In the end, I’m super anxious to see what she does next (not including that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ sequel, since I won’t be seeing that).

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