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At a fleet but by no means flippant 69 minutes, the story being told in Aki Kaurismäki‘s The Match Factory Girl is short but certainly not sweet. At the center of the purposeful non-action is Iris, played by Kaurismäki axiom Kati Outinen, a young woman who works at the titular day job to support her deadbeat parents. One day, on a whim, she uses part of her paycheck to buy herself a pretty blouse, which is what first attracts the attention of a gentleman suitor, Aarne (Vesa Vierikko), who turns out to be far colder and cruel than she originally thought. I’m leaving out the details of either character’s day-to-day activities but the filmmaker certainly does not; in fact, the Finnish master, who most recently helmed the wondrous Le Havre, builds his film around simple processes, from washing the dishes to penning a letter. In this, Kaurismäki crafts a film that at once nails the quotidian monotony that dominates the tasks of low-income households and workers, and expresses the touches of grace and, more times than not, cynicism that questions the philosophical and societal substance of these daily actions.
The Finnish writer-director borrows equally from French master Robert Bresson and Jim Jarmusch, who has a craftsman’s love for the art of the filmic deadpan, just like Kaurismäki. Early into the film, a news report on the television goes over the occurrences at Tiananmen Square and Iris’s parents stare at the television with a dull glaze, making immediately clear that its the colorful pictures that interest them, not the horror or political discontent going on in China at the time. Kaurismäki’s camera pans over to Iris at this moment, putting on her makeup carefully, and in this, the director makes sure not to make his main character an exception to this world of political disinterest and emotional numbness. Still, this doesn’t obfuscate the hurt and cruel archness that Iris comes in contact with: her stepfather (Esko Nikkari) hits her for not handing over the entirety of her paycheck to him immediately, her mother is adrift in indifference, and Aarne, after he sleeps with her and impregnates her, abandons her before demanding she “get rid of the brat.” The world the writer-director creates may be cynical from the outset, but he never adopts an us vs. them approach in the narrative to suggest, condescendingly, that there’s an easy fix to this issue.
Neither, for that matter, does Kaurismäki stress the grimness or paranoia of this situation, especially not in his exquisite compositions. The story itself is as much fable as urban legend, a tale related by your college roommate about their hometown when they were a few beers in, but crucially structured as a cautionary, caustic vision of modern capitalism; the purchase of the blouse, after all, is the event that sparks Iris’s descent into homicidal impulses. In composition, Kaurismäki echoes Norman Rockwell‘s plain-faced sense of cultural mythology, colorful and attentively detailed shots that, when grafted onto such a bleak view of humanity, feel subtly subversive; a picturesque depiction of feelings, actions, and philosophies that no one would want to be representative of their culture, race, or species. The simplicity of the story also highlights the meticulous nature of the writer-director’s framings, which are deeply effective in their aching stillness, which is a reflection of what has been eating away at Iris to the point that she starts poisoning people.
Most of the people Iris chooses to bump off are understandable, but the scene in which she poisons a seemingly harmless bar patron is important in the forming of the filmmaker’s conception of modern life in Finland. As with the shot of Iris putting on make-up, this sequence offers more than an inclination that Kaurismäki does not exactly believe in righteous heroes, and that a revenge on life is almost never particularly tidy. In this, the writer-director essentially includes himself among the guilty by admitting the character he’s most empathetic to is also complicit in the saturnine mechanics of his beleaguered world. The first sequence of the film shows the process in which a tree trunk is turned into millions of matchsticks, and this comes to be a symbol of how a human can be whittled down to small, seemingly insignificant splint that could become a destructive force with a simple strike, not unlike the one Iris’s stepfather delivers. But of course, it’s also a recognition of the limitations of filmmaking in depicting the chaotic world and busy, inexplicable interior lives, taking the full force of the living world and attempting, far better than most artists, to portray the whole mishigas in a sliver of time.
The Match Factory Girl is currently streaming on Hulu Plus.