The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki was already a critical success when he had his first hit (in cult terms), 1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, a road movie about a fictional Russian rock band on tour. The Match Factory Girl came a year later. It was neither as commercially or critically successful, in spite of Roger Ebert’s raves.
It looks like something of an intellectual and artistic exercise – storytelling pared back to the absolute minimum – dialogue, lighting, acting style, ambient sound and music compressed and compressed again until there’s no fat left to lose. Its short running time (one hour nine minutes) made it difficult to categorise and a hard sell for cinema distributors who like a film to be long enough to satisfy a bang-for-buck audience but not so long that the cinemas can’t get three screenings in per evening.
None of this matters in the post cinema age, of course.
Story: Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a miserable factory job, doing quality control on matches being produced by the sort of big cast-iron machines that look like they will never wear out. She lives with her mother and stepfather, who sponge off her and treat her appallingly. She goes to a dance and ends up a wallflower. She buys a pretty dress and her stepfather calls her a whore. Her mother tells her to take it back to the shop. Iris doesn’t. She puts it on and goes out and picks up a man, who also treats her appallingly. Discovering she’s pregnant, she throws herself at him, but no dice. So she decides to take revenge – on him and on men and humanity more generally.
As I say, pared back is the order of the day. There is barely a word spoken, expressions are deadpan, bodies are caught in mannequin stillness, the lighting is almost insanely bright – Kaurismäki’s regular DP Timo Salminen looks to have simply turned all the lights on and left them on. The impression is almost of a medieval mummers play done by arc lighting.
As some compensation, though it also reinforces the starkness, is the acid-bright production design – Iris’s shitty self-regarding beau Aarne (Vesa Vierikko) lives in a white apartment with a labia-pink sofa, for instance – and in one bleak set-up after another, a random splash of colour seems to offer some counterweight to the overall gloom.
Whether Kaurismäki is trying to be funny or not is the question. “Deadpan” is a word often paired with “Comedy” and once Iris gets her revenge plan underway there is wry satisfaction to be had from her efficiency at carrying it out. Clearly Iris’s life on the production line has taught her something about method, simplicity and speed. And when this barely articulate woman gets to have her big speech, to Aarne, who has been a classic one-night-stand cavalier and doesn’t understand why she doesn’t understand that, there is a barbed second meaning to it which will also raise a smile, especially as we know something that Aarne doesn’t.
Slim, sleek, simple and infused with a particular Finnish doggedness – Kaurismäki has been honoured by Finland’s Aleksis Kivi Society for his obstinacy and self-will – it’s the last of Kaurismäki’s Proletariat trilogy (with Shadows in Paradise and Ariel), but a very neat (if dour) introduction to his work if the Finnish auteur is new to you.
And if you don’t like it, well, it’s short.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020