Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer, Britnee, and Brandon watch The Match Factory Girl (1990).
Hanna: For this year’s first Movie of the Month, I’m returning to the cinema of my people with a feel-good romp called The Match Factory Girl (1990), which is written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, arguably the most famous Finnish film director. The Match Factory Girl is the last film in the Proletariat Trilogy, which includes Shadows in Paradise and Ariel. All three films detail the dull lives of working-class people in Finland; they are very Finnish, very dour, and surprisingly funny.
In The Match Factory Girl, Iris (Kati Outinen) works at a match factory. By day, she checks the boxes of matches shooting past her on a conveyor belt for labeling errors; by night, she eats potato stew in silence with her parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) while footage of the Tiananmen Square protests flickers in the background. Iris eventually finds a man (Vesa Vierikko) to take her home, who assures her that “nothing could touch [him] less than [her] affection”. Even the local nightlife is unusually dreary. In one of my favorite scenes, Iris visits a local club where the band plays a rousing rendition of “Satumaa”, a popular Finnish tango detailing a far-off paradise à la “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In keeping with the blunt ennui pervading the Finnish population, the chorus ends, “Unlike the birds, I’m a prisoner of this earth / And only in my dreams can I see that blessed turf.” Bummer! (As a side note, “Satumaa” was one of my dad’s favorite songs, and my sisters and I used to gather together and sing it while he played the piano. I never knew the English translation until I saw this movie, and it now strikes me as a strange song to teach to children.)
I initially feared that this movie would be nothing but a character study in pain, the kind of film where the protagonist suffers and suffers until they’re finally relieved of suffering through death. Instead, the drudgery of Iris’s life is presented plainly, sometimes with comic hopelessness. For instance, I couldn’t help but laugh when Iris visits her brother (who has a very cool black mullet) at his café, and he delivers her the saddest “sandwich” I’ve ever seen: just a piece of bread covered in six cherry tomato slices. Moreover, Iris eventually finds the will to stage her own subdued version of a violent revolution, which is incredibly satisfying (even if morally dubious).
The job market has changed drastically in the last 30 years, and dreadful factory jobs like Iris’s are increasingly automated, but I think this film still captures the basic frustration of laboring for a life that isn’t even fundamentally fulfilling. Britnee, can you still identify with the dehumanization that Iris feels in the match factory? What did you think of this portrait of working-class life?
Britnee: I am so glad you asked me this question! I work in an office job, which is quite different from doing quality control in a match factory, but oh boy, I definitely identified with Iris. There are times where I will think of how I’m working to just keep up with my basic needs (rent, utilities, health insurance, etc.), and I will basically spend my life on Earth working every single day until I die. I come home after work for only a few hours of pleasure, then go to bed early so I can wake up early and do the same thing the next day. When I partake in social events (pre-pandemic of course), I’m mostly too exhausted from work to even enjoy myself. Every day’s the same and there’s little to no opportunity to get ahead. Watching Iris open and close that dreary gate to get into the apartment she shares with her parents reminded me of doing the same to get into my apartment to and from work day after day after day. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with horrible parents when I get home like poor Iris did. Coming from a working class family, I witnessed this struggle of a life of labor every single day until I was old enough to join in the hell myself. Whether in Finland or the United States, it’s all the same I guess. Thankfully, the film is able to capture that day-to-day working class dreariness while being comical and entertaining.
One of my favorite films of 2020 was Swallow, where I found myself cheering on a bored housewife who found pleasure in swallowing dangerous objects. I did the same for Iris when she secretly started poisoning everyone around her. Instead of being horrified, I was proud of her for taking some sort of control in her boring life. Iris is such a likeable character. She’s a sweet, genuinely good person who is constantly shit on, and I just wanted her to find some sort of happiness. If that meant poisoning the horrible people making her life miserable, then so be it.
Boomer, do you also find satisfaction in Iris’s rat poison rampage?
Boomer: Boy, do I! Maybe I’m just a really twisted fuck, but I was not expecting this movie to go where it did, and I loved it. Although it slots perfectly into my beloved “women on the verge” genre, when those films go on a revenge kick, they rarely do so with such understatement. Most of the time, our character who is Going Through It either manages to pull back from the edge of their cliff, dissolves in upon oneself, or goes flying over the edge into vengeful Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory. It’s notable (and more than a little shameful) that most of the films in the last of these three categories are about men while the protagonists of the former two are universally women, but it tells you something about what the filmmakers think about women, their agency, and what warrants a breakdown. The “hero” of Falling Down is a terrible person who takes his anger about exploitation out on the victims of that exploitation (fast food workers and service station cashiers) while being performatively offended by the fact that a white supremacist recognizes a reflection of himself in the protagonist. Iris is a woman exploited by the system on every front. Her employment is dull and unfulfilling employment, and the spoils of her labor are transferred to her mother and stepfather in total. She experiences sexism at the hands of not only Aarne (who thinks she’s a prostitute) and her stepfather (who abuses and steals from her), but also by her mother, who like many trapped in the system of exploitation, becomes the oppressor in her own way (kicking Iris out of the house and only allowing her back in if she plays servant). Although Iris’s vengeance is arguably outsized, as a revenge fantasy, it’s fantastic. And who can blame her, when all the world is full of images of revolution against an oppressive state, as seen in her parents’ constant consumption of TV news.
Speaking of what I expected, I went into the film thinking it would be a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” I thought that maybe there would be a pun in the title, but looking at the Finnish title for the fairy tale (“Pieni ottelutyttö”), there doesn’t appear to be one; still, there’s something at play here, I think. Like Andersen’s little match girl, Iris fears her (step)father’s fury with regards to her earnings, all of which go to him, with the implication that the girl is supporting her lazy father’s drinking habit. The difference is that the match girl’s ultimate reward is death and ascension to heaven (it’s Hans Christian Andersen; surely you didn’t expect something different), a transition from earthly misery to paradise in the afterlife. Iris takes more agency in her life and, although the law catches up with her she moves from a prison of economic depression to one of her own choosing, at least.
What do you think, Brandon? Is there a fairy tale element to Iris’s transformation, or am I reading too much into it?
Brandon: I can’t say that fairy tales were at the forefront of my mind, since this takes place in a world so brutally devoid of magic and romance. However, you’re in good company making that connection. In Roger Ebert’s 2011 review for his site’s “Great Movies” column, he wrote, “Growing up in Finland Kaurismäki would certainly have heard Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Little Match Girl.’ It told the story of a waif in the cold on Christmas Eve, trying to sell matches so her father will not punish her. To keep warm she lights one match after another, and they summon visions which give her comfort. She finally finds happiness of a heartbreaking sort.” The parallels are certainly there, if not only in how the two Match Girls are both punished for seeking comfort in an otherwise bitterly cruel world (one in a lonely death and the other in arrest for her crimes), but their stories both still feel like minor personal victories. Our heartbroken factory worker is no longer a “free” woman at the end of this film, but her life before arrest didn’t seem all that pleasurable anyway. At least her poisonous vengeance afforded her a brief moment of selfish satisfaction & comfort before she gets caught, same as her fairy tale equivalent’s brief moment of peace found in a match’s flame before death.
I experienced The Match Factory Girl more as a low-key revenge thriller and a wryly dark comedy than as a modern fairy tale, but any one of those three genre labels would have to come with a warning that it is aggressively muted in its tone. This film is whimsically bleak, a seemingly self-contradictory descriptor that’s somewhat unique to Finnish cinema. It’s patient, largely dialogue-free, and understated in its vintage beauty – like watching a Polaroid in motion. And yet, it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the third-act vengeance is just as thrilling as any rowdy big-budget action sequence despite choosing not to directly depict her body count on-screen.
Britnee: I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the soundtrack of this movie. All of the music is really fun, especially all of the club music. I had a lot of head bopping moments during some really depressing scenes. Badding Rockers, Klaus Treuheit, and The Renegades have made their way into my monthly playlist thanks to The Match Factory Girl!
Brandon: I’m a little ashamed of how pleasing I found the opening footage of the matchstick factory machines doing their work. I know its function in the film is to underline how automated factory work has made modern manual labor so impersonal & limiting (especially since the humans operating the machines are cropped out of the frame in that intro). Still, there’s a reason that kind of footage often ends up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood field trip segments or YouTube highlight reels with titles like “Most Satisfying Factory Machines and Ingenious Tools 12”. It’s hypnotically beautiful, even if it facilitates a real-life evil.
Hanna: Kaurismaki has been compared to Robert Bresson for his minimalistic directorial style, and to Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his working-class melodramas (in fact, Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar and and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul are two of his favorite films). I think it’s the combination of those influences that makes The Match Factory Girl so compelling to me: Kaurismaki captures exactly how funny, cruel, and unbearably banal it is to be alive.
Boomer: I tried to see if there was a more concise term than “Falling Down/God Bless America/I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore/Spree territory,” since they’re all “revenge” films of a kind, but that terminology calls to mind Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are much more macho and gross than what I’m thinking about. This led me to try Letterboxd for the first time to see if I could look for lists which have those films in common, but I didn’t have any luck. In fact, if you Google those film titles in quotation to see if anyone else is exploring those films in conversation with one another, Swampflix is the fourth example. I guess that means it falls to us to name it, and I propose we call it “Match Factory Girl on the Verge.”
-The Swampflix Crew