Thoughts On: The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan Tyttö) (1990)
A somewhat plain and unremarkable woman that works in a match factory hopes of a better life.
The Match Factory Girl is a frighteningly powerful film about the minor positions the vast majority of people assume in life as well as the overwhelming conflicts which come with that for some; the crux of realism. But, whilst this film is framed as a dark comedy of sorts, I certainly didn’t see it as such. Rather, there are elements of irony and a fractured sense of comeuppance within this narrative, but this never struck me as comedic. Instead, The Match Factory Girl was a poignant study of silent characterisation whereby our protagonist rarely speaks with words, rather actions, leaving elements of her persona blank spaces which we may fill in with our own biases. This sets a strong base for this narrative, one that is malleable and ambiguous enough so that the comedic elements that may be present can be interpreted otherwise. Furthermore, as well as being a study of silent characterisation, this film is an exploration of human potential. However, to discuss this further we’ll be referring to the entire narrative, so, if you haven’t seen this film and don’t want it spoiled don’t read on.
Human potential is an idea represented by the symbol of a match in this narrative. In such, people, like matches, exist in abundance; countless numbers of us born every day. Moreover, like matches, people hold about them a capacity to profoundly effect the world – to ignite and spark something remarkable. But, the vast majority of lit matches either die in the wind or do little more than light a cigarette. And the metaphor holds up when we look to people; because we are human, we have an inherent ability to do anything, but will almost definitely do nothing of major note. Granted, this is a rather cynical assessment of human potential, however, there lies an inherent truth in the analogy – we cannot all walk on the moon for the first time, we cannot all discover electricity, we cannot all run billion pound/dollar corporations. This leaves most of us striving to find more minor successes; building a home and family, following a passion, securing a happy life. And this is what we see our protagonist, Iris, struggling to find as the narrative opens.
In such, Iris lives with her mother and stepfather, working at a match factory to pay for rent. However, she goes out at night, hoping to attract a good guy, but has no luck. And it’s this introduction that sucks you into her world because it immediately exposes the basic dreams of the average person through Iris, yet holds them out of reach. We see this through her living with her rather uncaring family in a drab home; she has no real freedom or independence. However, she’s clearly working towards this with her job – a mundane one that she find no happiness in. But, without any current passion, loving family or true security and independence, she longs for a companion. So, sat in dance club, she waits for someone, for her future to hopefully brighten with the mundane luminescence of normalcy. But, because this never comes, the pressure of her inner conflicts start to become ever more poignant as she risks the level of security and independence as well as the familial bonds she has so far attained by investing her paycheck in a dress; a symbol of hope and, in a certain sense, a candle in the window calling out into the world.
With seeming serendipity, this call is answered as she’s picked up by Aarne. This initially cites the chaotically arbitrary and by-chance nature of life; it seems that so many elements have to fall together and somehow stay in place for a happy life to be constructed. But, with the themes of chance pushed to the background, irony barges its way into the narrative when Iris’ somewhat desperate yearning for happiness is interpreted as a prostitute’s proposition. This conflict crescendos as this ‘prostitute’ invites her customer to her parents’ house to drink coffee with them before being taken on a date. And it’s here where we see the collision between all of Iris’ conflicts, in turn, the destruction of not only her dreams for a better life with Aarne, however mundane (and seemingly the first true chance she has secured), but also the destruction of what she has already established in life. In such, she is left without much purpose, hope or confidence. Nonetheless, there still remains a glimmer of drive within Iris, and this is somewhat flamed when she discovers that she is pregnant. It’s here that we see all ideas of a potential future between Iris and Aarne rise to a peak again, hinting at a break from irony and back towards serendipity. But, this tease falls flat when Iris is sent the money for an abortion with the note: ‘Get ride of the brat’.
Iris spirals into a distraught state as she leaves the house, leaving her mother to find the letter. And it’s here where, accidental or intentional, Iris ends up stepping into traffic and having a miscarriage. It’s at this point that all hope seems to be gone; her parents abandon her and she is left with nothing. With thanks to her brother, Iris has a safety net of sorts. But, she only uses this to ignite – as a proverbial matchstick – her potential. The lit match is not used to start the furnaces of a significantly better life, nor is it used to light the average cigarette. Instead, the lit match is dropped on a trail of gasoline that snakes towards ultimate destruction. And we see this as Iris poisons Aarne, her parents and even a random man who propositions her at a bar –all willing to accept the inevitable consequences. With this, she throws all hope away and submits herself to the will of a society who will now put her in a cage for the rest of her life.
And it’s here where we see the power of this narrative. The Match Factory Girl isn’t just a tale of cynical and nihilistic revenge, rather an assessment of dreams in face of human potential. In such, the narrative seems to conclude that, without some sense of a dream or current purpose, potential is too easily squandered on destruction as opposed to creation. So, with people symbolised by a match stick, The Match Factory Girl is about the manufacturing of the rather strange creatures that we are; ones bound to context, past, present, dreams, memories and hopes – an honest, bittersweet and moving depiction of humanity.
But, to end, what are your thoughts on The Match Factory Girl?
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