First published by EyeforFilm
The Match Factory Girl begins with a quote from Sergeanne Golon’s Countess Angelique, one of a series of period novels concerning a humble young woman’s quest for vengeance upon those who have done her wrong – and later in the film we see a collection of the Angelique novels in the bookshelf of protagonist Iris (Kati Outinen). For while Shadows In Paradise (1986), the first film in Aki Kaurismäki’s underdog, or workers’, trilogy, was concerned with solidarity, and the second, Ariel (1988), dealt with escape, the subject of the trilogy’s closer is revenge – and, as one might expect from Finland’s pope of deadpan, it is a dish served icy cold. Think Kill Bill, but with the guns, swords, babes and even the epic duration replaced by some good old Nordic miserabilism.
Dowdy and past her bloom, Iris works in a match factory all day, before heading home to cook and clean for her exploitative mother (Elina Salo) and stepfather (Esko Nikkari), and perhaps venturing out later to play the wallflower at the local dancehall. One night, wearing a new floral dress, she gets picked up by white-collar worker Aarne (Vesa Vierikko), and spends the night at his up-market pad. She is very much in love, but he has mistaken her for a prostitute, and cruelly rebuffs her attempts to see him again. His response to the news that she is pregnant proves even harsher. Abandoned by Aarne and her parents, Iris plots her revenge on the rats who have shattered her dreams – for as the old adage goes, you play with matches, you get burned…
As all this plays out, TV reports of the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent military crackdown are regularly seen in the background, and sure enough, The Match Factory Girl is a drama of oppression and resistance. Iris’ every hope for a good life, love and a family is brutally crushed, and her attempts to take on her persecutors seem as heroic – and as futile – as the stance adopted by an unarmed Chinese student before a row of advancing tanks.
If this is one of Kaurismäki’s most overtly political films, it is also one of his bleakest. At first, the interactions between these gloomy, near silent characters are darkly comic, but by the end there is little room for laughter. Iris’ final acts are born of despair, bringing emptiness rather than satisfaction, and where the director usually rounds off his absurdly lugubrious offerings with a hint of optimism, here there is only the sense that things are already way beyond the point where they can get any worse. We have witnessed no less than the demolition of a woman’s innocence – nothing like in the romances that Iris likes to read.
She may be one of cinema’s least glamorous, and most taciturn, heroines, but Kaurismäki regular Outinen proves herself the divine muse of minimalism, conveying more emotion with her stony facial expressions than a whole marquee’s worth of shrill starlets could manage. Her long silences are filled by a masterly selection of crooned oldies and rhythm ‘n’ blues that set the tone as perfectly as a chorus – while framing Iris’ quiet presence is the equally still camerawork of Timo Salmonen, revealing a small figure caught up in a larger system beyond her control, not unlike a matchstick on a vast production line.
What is more, running at an economic (but still stately) 66 minutes, The Match Factory Girl is the very definition of short and sour.