David Fincher’s Lisbeth Salander speeds around on motorcycle, administers stitches with dental floss, and strikes fear into the hearts of grown men. But at her core is something of the same marshy emotional landscape that resides in us all.

In Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of the blockbuster literary phenomenon, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, the literal girl with the dragon tattoo, was the product of a transformative process for actress Rooney Mara. Her hair, died black, was chopped to a short, edgy crop with a micro-fringe, her eyebrows were bleached, one brow and nipple were pierced for real. Her false tattoos were painstakingly applied daily before shooting. As well as the physical transformation, Mara’s accent, body language, and demeanour were all constructed to suit Salander’s socially-outcast and emotionally-detached character.

For the damaged character of few words that is Lisbeth Salander, costume is also key: each one providing the visual cues that project personality and convey thoughts. In the first film of the David Fincher-directed trilogy, Salander’s clothing, hair and makeup become the text as we read between the lines of the unspoken story.

Salander’s costuming is a reflection of the bleak view of Sweden painted by Stieg Larsson in his Millennium novels: a place where evil doesn’t so much rule as it does bubble away beneath the surface, where authorities can’t be trusted and neither can the corporate world. Costume designer Trish Summerville saw Salander as someone who wasn’t just alternative in her fashion tastes, but as a person who could easily fade into the margins of society. In Fincher’s film, Salander’s wardrobe is a uniform of dark hoodies, leather jackets, combat boots and shredded tees. The costume department was careful to give every item a worn-in feel, as if Salander only settles on the items that are comfortable, practical, and thus lived in and loved. Pay attention to the finer details and you’ll notice that in some scenes, electrical tape can be seen wound around her boots – this is where costuming becomes overt communication and tells us, the viewer, that Lisbeth Salander is the kind of person who’ll do whatever it takes to keep moving.

If there’ll be a widespread criticism of Fincher’s Salander it will no doubt involve that oft-bandied about word: Hollywoodization. Indeed Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is slender and pretty, and brings a sexy edge to one of society’s demographics that’s often scorned instead of found to be desirable. And all that’s before she reveals a willingness to get naked with frequency. But if her appeal is criticised as being a beeline for commercial success, perhaps it’s worth considering that Stieg Larsson’s original character is sexually confident and, despite her clothing choices, alluring to both genders – so why shouldn’t Mara’s be? In an era where anything goes, where what was once on the fringe merges with the mainstream, it would be amiss to write off the sex appeal of Mara’s Salander as a blatant attempt to cash in on a wider audience.

If Fincher’s film falls drastically short in the obvious contrasts that will be made between it and the novel, it is in its character and relationship developments. There are two reasons for this, if we’re to give the director the benefit of the doubt: firstly that running-time constraints mean it’s simply not possible to transpose the entire book, and secondly that much of what Larsson’s characters go through is internalised. What can’t be said out loud in dialogue in the film must therefore be inferred through subtle actions, the score, and changes in each characters’ fashion choices.

costume girl with the dragon tattoo

Take, for example, the evolution of Salander’s makeup. Makeup artist Pat McGrath created over 30 different makeup looks for the film, none more symbolic than a pale face with black raccoon-like eyes. There’s a resemblance, perhaps even a hat tip, to Daryl Hannah’s Pris in Blade Runner. Both characters ceremonially apply a mask of black eye makeup: if this is war, the makeup is their warpaint. And for Salander, a dark angel meting out twisted justice, this is most definitely war.

In time, as Salander’s relationships grow and her emotional guard is somewhat lowered, her look softens. The makeup becomes more feminine, as does her repertoire of hairstyles. Hairstylist Danilo turned out an impressive range of styles for the film, from strong and punk-inspired to innocent and elfin. Some are a little too neat and fussy for what a character like Salander – not the most image-conscious of young women – might spend time on; but, as with the clothing, there’s a careful balance between authenticity and providing styles that viewers will walk away wanting to replicate. We might also assume, then, that the perceived ‘Hollywoodization’ and commercial realities were also the savage hounds that took down the references to Astrid Lindgren that provided such a strong, Swedish undercurrent to Stieg Larsson’s books. Larsson saw Salander as a grown up Pippi Longstocking – that Lindgren character with red plaits and striped socks – but you won’t spot any stripes on Rooney Mara’s feet.

rooney mara as lisbeth salander

Salander’s outfits may have an innate cool factor, but essentially her dress sense is her armour and her defence mechanism in society. She doesn’t crave attention and wants to be left alone – unless she’s the instigator of a relationship. Her tattoos, too, are a personal outlet and, when abused, Salander’s refuge of choice is a tattoo parlour. For Salander, the pain is both hardening and therapeutic. And the tough exterior is what she uses to keep people at a distance.

She may be damaged, may be emotionally guarded, but it’s Lisbeth Salander’s intelligence, independence and strength that make her character such an iconic one. While Salander’s appearance in David Fincher’s film – much like the pulsating industrial soundscapes and deliberately discordant notes of Trent Reznor’s brilliant score – is designed to provoke a feeling of unease, it’s because that’s just the way she likes it. No single piece of costuming sums it up better than one of Salander’s shredded t-shirts, emblazoned with the none-too-subtle slogan,

Fuck you
you fucking
fuck.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be released in cinemas in the US and Scandinavia on December 21st, 2011, the UK on boxing day 2011, and Australia on January 12, 2012.

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