Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Iris Rukka has sadness etched all over her face. With a slender build, sunken eyes and a silent disposition, she is pain incarnate. She hardly speaks throughout the film and thus exists more like just another part of the scenery, as if she is just another prop to be arranged in the shot.
Iris works at a factory performing a soul-crushing job arranging things on an assembly line. It’s like the factory from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, all fast-paced, repetitive and mundane. She is a tool and little more.
She lives with her parents who hardly speak to her but who label her a “whore” when she buys a new dress. She goes to a dance where everyone pairs off expect for her. Later she will go to a bar where a man mistakes her for a prostitute, and they have a one night stand. Her sights set on this man, Iris pursues another date, and while he goes out with her, he quickly shuts her down, insisting he has no attraction to her and wants nothing to do with her.
Soon after she discovers she is pregnant with his child. Iris will write the man a letter and ask to see him. They visit, he pours them a couple drinks, and she adds rat poison to his. It’s a sudden, silent act of revenge not only for how he has treated her but for how the world has surely treated her.
The rat poison becomes Iris’ only course of action, at least as she sees it. Not only does she poison the man who shunned her, but then she goes to a bar, receives one flirty look from a guy and calmly pours the rat poison into his beer. He drinks it, and she leaves. She then returns home and poisons both her parents.
The film then ends with her too passive to put up a fight when the police come and arrest her. Iris’ story ends as quietly as it began. Hers is a destructive tale but an eerily quiet one nonetheless. You get the sense that while she suffered, there was never a singular antagonistic force working against her. Instead she was the victim of an apathetic world. If she doesn’t fit anyone’s needs then she is free to be cast aside.
The Match Factory Girl strongly resembles the works of Robert Bresson, notably Mouchette (1967) and L’Argent (1983). In his films the actors were mannequins, made to stand mostly still and repeat lines with no emotion. They really were extensions of the set, models rather than performers.
Mouchette is about a sad girl (named ‘little fly’) who suffers continually throughout the story. She receives no kindness except from an older man who sexually assaults her and who, from what I recall, Mouchette in return shows affection. She is horribly beaten down by the world but has become so accustomed to it that she can’t even tell when she is being attacked.
L’Argent is a story about a solemn, silent figure who pays the price for someone else’s crime. He is sent to prison where his life subsequently falls apart. Eventually he is released, but he has been so corrupted by the experience that he goes on a murderous rampage.
Elements of both of these stories are here in The Match Factory Girl. Iris is a sad and empathetic figure because the world is so absolutely cruel to her. The film enforces the hopeless feeling by giving her some agency but only to carry out the same cruelty shown to her. She is both a victim and a perpetrator of the world’s violence.
Stories like these are the most bleak. There is no singular villain, no character or idea at which to attach one’s fury. Iris is the type of character who we want to see stand up for herself and find some kind of meaning, but she is utterly lost. She never has any chance to survive in a landscape such as this, and the film suggests that the more certain people/communities are held down, the more hostility this will create. You have to give love to get love, I suppose is the simplest message, and as Iris receives none, she then has none to give in return.
Up Next: The Running Man (1987), The Death of Stalin (2017), Ariel (1988)