Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Criterion Cuts, where I take a look at one of the films provided by everyone’s favorite arthouse/foreign cinema home release label–The Criterion Collection. As usual, this week’s offering comes from the massive collection available to Hulu Plus subscribers, which means you can play along at home for a pretty reasonable fee.
Before we jump into this week’s movie I wanted to take a little aside. This maybe deserves its own article someday, but I just wanted to mention it here. The movie we’re going to talk about is a complete movie, with a nuanced story and what you could easily break into a traditional three act structure if that’s your thing. It’s also 68 minutes. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of going to see The Immortals, which … well, I don’t want to bag on it, because I liked some of it, but at just shy of two hours it might as well be justified as an editing atrocity.
What happened to storytelling? You go back and look at movies, and I’ll admit that this is cyclical, but there are plenty of classic movies that deliver reams of plot and emotional content in a frame that rarely breaks 90 minutes. And for all the talk about ‘bang for your buck,’ I would much rather see a coherent, tightly wound film that was done in an hour and change than a 3 hour epic. Even great 3 hour epics, of which there are few, start to stretch into the kind of thing you have to wrap your whole day around. Maybe it’s just that I watch a lot of movies, but man, I could stand to see some more 68 minute movies. So without further ado, let’s get on with talking about
The Match Factory Girl (1990)
I feel like it’s almost a spoiler to talk about the genre the film is in, but thankfully we here at Criterion Cuts don’t give one whit about any damn spoilers, we just want to get people watching movies! So I’m just going to say it: The Match Factory Girl is one of the strangest, most strikingly understated and surprisingly touching revenge movies I’ve ever seen.
The heroine of the movie is a young woman named Iiris, a worker at the titular match factory who lives an existence that is as far from heroic as one could get. She is meek to the point of nonexistence, plain and nearly silent and almost entirely expressionless behind slightly wounded too-big eyes. She lives with parents who take food right off her plate, take her paycheck from her, and force her to sleep on the couch when her mother isn’t occupying it with her chain smoking habit and thousand-yard stare. She goes to places where people meet people, clubs and dances, but is always left alone.
The one bright spot she has is the romance novel she reads on her way home from work, the only time in the entire film we see her smile. And maybe it’s those kinds of buried romantic sentiments that get her in trouble, as she gets up the courage to blow her paycheck on a pretty red dress, only to get repaid by being called a whore by her father and ending up going home with a wild-eyed man who leaves her pregnant and then leaves her outright to deal with it.
The thing is, this would easily be the seed for rampant melodrama in any other film, but here it’s played with an objectivity that borders on lunacy. Maybe it’s the immovable facade of our heroine, maybe it’s the absurdity of so much being piled upon her as we watch without even the movie trying to make an emotional plea, but what comes across isn’t so much the usual dramatic audience manipulation but something that seems almost funny. In a way, refusing to try to go for the emotional shortcuts in this story ends up humanizing our heroine all the more. She’s stoic when nobody on earth would blame her for being in hysterics, and at a certain point it becomes impossible not to acknowledge that and in some weird way respond to it.
It doesn’t help that the movie is backed up by a wildly inappropriate soundtrack, pop tunes playing over moments of nothing more than Iiris eating soup or staring ahead at nothing, a meta-punctuation of the action that seems appropriate in its utter lack of propriety, the kinds of random musical leaps that happen in real life when certain key moments of a person’s life are associated with music that cares nothing for suiting the mood. It’s a subtle, masterful stroke, something that’s almost never seen in movies that so often rely on underlining each beat with soundtracks or music to match.
As Iiris’ life begins this freefall, she ends up alone and homeless and bereft of even the few comforts she had. It’s at this point that she sits down and smokes a cigarette, a moment punctuated so carefully by how she seemed to be the only one not smoking early on in the movie. And at this moment, something seems to happen behind her eyes. It’s then that she marches down to the corner store and buys a bottle of poison.
What follows is a swath of destruction, understated as the rest of the film, as she takes the bottle out of her purse and doses anyone who crosses her. The man who dumped her, her parents, random guys who hit on her at the bar. None escape her wrath, dispensed with an efficiency and apathy that’s shocking only in how strangely appropriate it feels.
Most revenge movies hinge on a feeling of regret or a feeling of triumph. Revenge is gotten, the hero has either realized how wrong it all is or in more escapist fare has rode off into the sunset happily ever after, but it’s always something. The Match Factory Girl gives nothing, no sense of satisfaction or of remorse. It instead seems, like everything else, to simply be the reality of things. Even a woman as beaten down as Iiris can only be pushed so far before she pushes back. And she never betrays who she is, even in these extremes. She faces murder and discovery as implaccably as she faced buying bread or sorting boxes of matches.
That kind of dependability, that stubborn characterization, is what makes it impossible not to love, despite its unwillingness to try to engage. It’s a movie that simply is, and is very comfortable with that, even if nobody else is. It’s not only commendable, but it’s lovely to see in a world where so much of cinema is focused on pandering or shocking. The Match Factory Girl is beyond doing either and is better for it.