The Match Factory Girl (1990, Aki Kaurismäki)

The Match Factory Girl is a hyper-focused character study. It opens with the visually fascinating process of a match factory before introducing lead Kati Outinen. Technically protagonist, obviously more subject. She quite noticeably doesn’t talk for the first twenty minutes or so, which says more about her situation than her character—no one’s interested in what Outinen has to say.

She works, rides the bus home reading romance novels, then cooks and cleans for mother Elina Salo and stepfather Esko Nikkari. When she’s feeling adventurous, she goes out to the neighborhood dance hall and waits in vain for a man to ask her to dance. Then it’s back to work, back to the romance novels, back to cooking and cleaning; she even gives her paycheck to Salo and Nikkari ostensibly for rent, but they clearly don’t work. We don’t get any exposition laying it out, but when we meet Outinen’s brother, Silu Seppälä, he’s got a couple informative lines.

Director Kaurismäki’s script fills in very little on Outinen’s ground situation; outside Seppälä, there’s a little bit implied about the relationship between Outinen and Salo, done through set dressings and lingering shots, not dialogue. From the start, when Outinen’s just moving through her days, Kaurismäki juxtaposes those silent activities against television news coverage of Tiananmen Square. Heavy contrast between events in the world and Outinen’s despondently mundane existence.

At least until she decides she’s had enough and she’s going to get something for herself. She gets a pretty dress, which leads to trouble at home—and establishes the financial situation Salo and Nikkari, as well as some of the extent of the abuse Outinen has been suffering at their hands—and then to Outinen breaking bad. Of course, Outinen’s breaking bad is just, you know, going out and having a bigger beer than usual at a night club and not the local dance joint.

At the night club, Outinen meets greasy yuppie Vesa Vierikko; after a night together, she thinks they’re dating, he does not. Lots of complications ensue.

Match Factory Girl doesn’t even run a full seventy minutes, so when Kaurismäki veers off the predicted trajectory for the third act, it all of a sudden becomes a (muted) thrill a minute. We’ve spent the entire film seemingly understanding at least Outinen’s capabilities but as her environment becomes more and more hostile to her… she goes a different route. The story’s always tragic in one way or another, but Kaurismäki takes it to new heights (depths?) of tragedy by the end.

Outinen’s fantastic. She’s good throughout but the big character “change” in the third act is entirely through her performance whereas Kaurismäki’s direction has been doing a lot of framing until that point. It’s still a character study at the end, just with Outinen running the show instead of Kaurismäki and… oh, he edited it too. So Kaurismäki. Timo Salminen’s photography is excellent but it’s all about the editing when it comes to how Kaurismäki crafts the narrative distance.

The supporting cast is all good. But they’re all entirely in support of Outinen, even when she’s not in the shot with them—which only happens a few times.

Exceptional work from Outinen and Kaurismäki. It’s amazing what they can do in an hour and nine minutes.

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