THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL directed by Aki Kaurismäki (Finland, 1990)

This movie is a masterpiece of minimalist drama; a  story of unrelenting yet strangely compelling bleakness. I first saw it on its original release and second time around it has lost none of its impact.

In just over one hour every detail matters and words are practically redundant. For the first fifteen minutes there is no dialogue whatsoever yet we learn all there is to know about Iris (played by Kati Outinen).

She works on a production line of a dismal match factory straightening labels on the packs as though part of the machinery.  Her sullen expression remains unchanged even when her shift ends.

It is soon apparent that her life beyond the factory  gates offers little in the way of relief.  Her humdrum chores continue when she returns home as we see her cooking and ironing while her parents slob around chain-smoking and slumped in front of the TV.

The mother stealing meat off her daughter’s plate is a small gesture that in another context might be comical. Here it is just another example of  Iris’ fate as the poor, put upon waif with no friends and no obvious means of escape from her dead-end existence.

She dresses up for nights out at a sad dance hall and in one heartrending scene we see her sitting alone, the only one not to be asked to dance as line of empty soft drink bottles builds up near where she sits. There is no anger, only the resigned acceptance of a woman who is accustomed to being ignored.

Another time , however, she yields to a bearded man who plainly sees her only an easy lay. That he is no prince charming in disguise is confirmed when, the morning after, he leaves her sleeping and tosses a bank-note onto the bedside table.

Earlier, after she had bought  a pretty dress with her wages, her father had called her a whore, slapped her face and ordered her to take the dress back to the shop. Now, this heartless man uses her with no more affection than he would a common prostitute.

In his excellent review of the movie, Roger Ebert writes “This cannot be a tragedy because she lacks the stature of a heroine. It cannot be comedy because she doesn’t get the joke. What can it be?” 

Kaurismäki is not poking fun at this woman’s plight but doesn’t seem to be demanding the audience’s sympathy either. All the details of her life are presented as though the only alternative to her dismal fate is to undertake desperate acts of vengeance upon those who conspire to worsen her already miserable existence.  

The Match Factory Girl is a grim fable of a bleak life endured with a passive fatalism before culminating in revenge without redemption.

A brilliant and unforgettable movie.