The Match Factory Girl is not entertaining in the way that we’ve grown to think of “entertainment”. By showing us a character living an unspectacular life, we are entertained in ways that other films never achieve. Aki Karuismaki is a director whose work I hope to see again soon, and much credit goes out to him for working at the margins of the Finnish film industry that’s dominated by Finnkino, a state-wide cinema chain owned by the Union Bank of Finland since 1986.
- Director: Aki Kaurismaki
- Writer: Aki Kaurismaki
- Cast: Kati Outinen
Iris (Kati Outinen) is a young woman working at a match factory in Helsinki, Finland. Despite living a monotonous existence, and with very little outwardly affection directed at her from her mom or stepfather and no real friends to speak of, Iris persistently moves ahead with her life. But living in a cold world without much sympathy will eventually lead to a breaking point. Here is an unflinching look at the life of a factory working girl living a hard-knock life.
From beginning to end, The Match Factory Girl is a rare treat in global cinema. Not only do we get a glimpse of one woman’s life caught in the grips of an industrial life in Europe, but here we have a director who knows how to give us a focused story with an unflinchingly consistent tone. The beginning sequence mesmerizes you in much the same way that watching food preparation in Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman does, director Aki Kaurismaki hypnotizes us with footage of match sticks being manufactured. In fact, no one even speaks a line a dialogue until we’re about 14 minutes in. The style is so minimalist that it feels real, triggering memories of Cassavetes and Fassbinder. While some have compared his work to Bresson, there is more life here than Bresson typically offered in films like A Man Escaped. We’re reminded that sometimes, despite the amazingness of modern special effects, it is most interesting to watch people going about their routines, whether it be getting ready for bed, shopping, eating, or working diligently.
What makes The Match Factory Girl a great film is that it constructs a modern tragedy with seemingly little effort and nothing forced down our throats. Iris is merely trying to cut out a happy existence for herself, and that it is that exact aspiration in its simplest form that makes her cold surrounding that much more heart-wrenching. She waits patiently at a nightclub for someone to dance with her, she works quietly without complaining, she later waits for the phone call from a guy she sleeps with, and through it all, her modest aspiration feels all the more painful to watch. Without ever coming off as someone who is “acting”, Kati Outinen conveys the existence of a working-class girl. Kaurismaki’s corner of the world is made all the more compelling as it presents an obscure existence with a window into global events (Tiananmen Square and Papal visits in other countries) that further provide a specific moment in time.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
I could not be more in agreement as I am with Ebert when he expresses his sympathy for the Iris during the first half of the film. Strangely, by the end of the film, humanity is portrayed at its cruelest, saddest, and most desolate. As Ebert points out, the lives portrayed here are unremarkable and mostly characterized by unrelenting grimness, sadness, desolation. And yet, we feel these emotions strongly in this film because these are all part of our human existence as well, whether we like it or not. “Few films are ever this unremittingly unyielding”, say Ebert, and I too found myself as riveted as I would be with any suspense thriller. Each horrific thing that happens to Iris is especially effective given the same tonal level with which Kaurismaki directs. Ebert hits the nail on the head when he adds, “Kaurismaki invites us to peer closely at these people he pins so precisely to the screen. What does it say that there can be such lives? How do people endure it? How do some of his characters even prevail?”
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like The Match Factory Girl? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: The Leopard
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Aki Kaurismaki’s The Match Factory Girl this week, he now has 322 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.