The Match Factory Girl (1990)

“Nothing could touch me less than your affection.”

‘The Match Factory Girl’, directed by Aki Kaurismäki in 1990, is a Finnish drama that completes the ‘Proletariat Trilogy’ that included the director’s 1988 movie ‘Ariel’. In this film, Kati Outinen plays Iris, a factory worker who is supporting her stepfather and mother. She works, brings home the small amount of money, cooks, and in the evenings she goes dancing. One night she buys a new dress and ends up sleeping with Aarne, a man who subsequently abandons her. When she finds she is pregnant, her life falls apart – she is kicked out of her home, forced to live with her brother and, finally, snaps with tragic consequences. It’s a spare, compact movie, only just over an hour, and yet the story of Iris is told both completely and richly. Kaurismäki clearly owes a massive debt to Robert Bresson and the closest analogue to this film is the French director’s ‘L’argent’ from 1983, with a similar mixture of the domestic and tragic and the same building tension and shocking climax. Like Bresson, Kaurismäki favours static shots, scenes that are isolated from each other, understated performances that make the emotional moments all the more raw. The other movie I was reminded of was Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ – with the same mundanity and the loss of control of a character that is almost invisible until they act upon their desperation. It also has a sharp political subtext: Iris’s desperate quest for recognition and escape is played against news footage of the Tiananmen Square protests, paralleling her life with the oppression of the Chinese students. It’s a kind of cinema that is hypnotic but hard; clinical but intimate. Kaurismäki balances the metaphor of the production of matches (identical sticks of wood like the Chinese students) with the existential predicament of his main character, and creates a movie that belies its short length.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s short, brutal and memorable. I’d go with ‘Jeanne Dielman’ as the double bill – Akerman’s movie is at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of duration but has the same sense of the ordinary mutating into something horrible.

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