THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL (1990)


"The Match Factory Girl" is the third film in Kaurismaki's Proletariat Trilogy. It follows "Shadows in Paradise," about a aimless garbage collector and "Ariel" (1988), about a coal miner who escapes his subterranean work by turning to crime. The three films have been packaged together and released by Criterion

''The Match Factory Girl'' begins with a log in a factory and follows the stages by which wood emerges as a box of matches. At the end of this long mechanical chain is a pair of hands hovering over a conveyor belt, making certain the mailing labels are stuck securely on the boxes. The hands belong to Iris, a wan blonde with circles under her eyes whose life threatens to remain as mundane and sterile as her job.
She pays rent to sleep on the couch in the apartment of her mother and stepfather, who do little more than eat and smoke. She puts on blue eyeshadow, goes to a dance and at the end of the evening is the only woman left sitting against the wall. And in a small act of heroism, she defies her parents and takes part of her paycheck to buy a cheap-looking red-flowered dress in which she is finally asked to dance. 


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This poor girl. I wanted to reach out my arms and hug her. That was during the first half of "The Match Factory Girl." Then my sympathy began to wane. By the end of the film, I think it's safe to say Iris gives as good as she gets.
The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki fascinates me. I am never sure if he intends us to laugh or cry with his characters--both, I suppose. He often portrays unremarkable lives of unrelenting grimness, sadness, desolation. When his characters are not tragic, he elevates them to such levels as stupidity, cluelessness, self-delusion or mental illness. Iris, the match factory girl, incorporates all of these attributes.
She is played by the actress Kati Outinen, a Kaurismäki favorite who has often starred for him. Whatever it is she does, she is very good at it. His camera stares at her, and she stares back. She is a pale blonde, slender, with a receding chin and eyes set deep in pools of mascara. If she were to laugh, that would be as novel as when Garbo talked for the first time. It would be easy to describe her as "plain," but you know, she would have a pretty face if she ever animated it with a personality. In "The Match Factory Girl" she is deadpan and passive, a person who is accustomed to misery.
This cannot be tragedy because she lacks the stature to be a heroine. It cannot be comedy because she doesn't get the joke. What can it be?
Roger Ebert



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