Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Starring: Kati Outinen
The term “tragedy” is somehow too optimistic to describe The Match Factory Girl. “Tragedy” usually implies there’s something good to begin with. But in Aki Kaurismaki’s final film of his Proletariat Trilogy, there is no silver lining to be found in the life of Iris, just quiet, unspoken anguish.
Iris is played by Kati Outinen. She is a plain-faced girl who, as the title implies, works at a match factory. When we first see her, her face is neutral; she scarcely shows emotion because, as we later learn, this façade is hiding the despair of abuse, neglect, and rejection. We see her traverse an abhorrent family life, as well as her going to bars and restaurants by herself. All the songs sang in the background seem to be about breaking away to freedom and being found attractive and loveable. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe Kaurismaki is trying to tell us something. She meets a man named Aarne, and when she dances with him is the first time we see her smile. She has a lovely glow, making the rest of the film a damn shame.
Kaurismaki’s vision is often a droll one—bleak shots of an ever-graying city, characters who were all but born with cigarettes in their mouths, and a certain aimlessness in these characters that commits to a cynicism accustomed to giving up altogether. And this film does not deviate from this style at all, in fact it embraces it more so than any other film of his I’ve seen thus far. Iris deals with her parents and her rejection from Aarne in a way that is so simple yet so uncompromising that we do not condemn her actions, just pity her all the more.
The very beginning of this film is a sequence of matches being made, stripped down from a barren log, thinning it to the ideal shape and size. Perhaps this is Kaurismaki showing what the universe has in store for Iris—twiddling down her psyche until she simply cannot take it anymore, or perhaps it’s a way of showing her inability to properly fit into her lifestyle. Or maybe Kaurismaki just wanted more sequences of the blue-collar work he tried to encapsulate into his trilogy.
Despite its simplicity, this is certainly the kind of film that’ll raise questions after group viewings. Was Iris acting out of desperation and cowardice, or was it an act of bravery that motivated the final hour? And what about that man she met in the bar, just before going to make her parent’s dinner? Did she simply condemn all men, or just men who wanted sex from her?
Some may look at films like these and see very little worth praising. It might be a tale of vengeance to some degree, but its hardly Kill Bill. It’s certainly minimalistic, but its no Stranger Than Paradise either. It takes place somewhere in the middle, capturing both the mundane day-to-day and the uglier side of the human condition. I recently viewed a video where Kaurismaki praised Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu on showing the essential parts of human life without the use of murder and violence. I think Kaurismaki manages to use murder as an unavoidable, albeit dreadful part of life on Earth in his film The Match Factory Girl.