Life is brutal

"The Match Factory Girl" finds that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.

Niels Strandskov

If the meek ever want to inherit Earth, they would do well to follow the example set by Iiris (Kati Outinen) in Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Match Factory Girl.”

Iiris works all day in the titular match factory, then comes home and attends to the whims of her silent, grumpy parents (Elina Salo and Esko Nikkari) in their cramped apartment. There’s not a shred of joy contained within her crushingly dull existence. Her brother, we learn, has escaped after a fashion, and works as a short order cook when he’s not rocking out. Iiris’ alienation is brought home by the fact that she doesn’t even use the produce of her labors to smoke, as nearly everyone else in the film does, and hence has no escape from her monotonous life.

It’s easy to forget just how many people in the world would kill to have a life like this. At least in Finland, a working class person like Iiris only has to contend with a limited number of forces that are trying to crush the life out of her. In Africa, South America and Asia, millions of young women get plenty of brutality to leaven the boredom.

Some hope for salvation comes to Iiris in the form of a red dress, which, despite her parents’ objections, she wears out on the town one night. Red dresses, like playwright Henrik Ibsen’s gun, have an imperative behind them whenever they’re introduced in a story. Iiris winds up pregnant, which only underscores the utter lack of life in her body. Faced with her hateful parents, hateful lover and hateful job, Iiris turns the world’s cruelty back upon itself.

Kaurismaki refuses to turn Iiris’ vengeance into a tawdry spectacle. Her methodical, almost perfunctory performance as a murderess is hardly the kind of zany bloodbath that provides a cheap and forgettable thrill for the jaded cinemagoer. Instead, the excitement comes from the moment she makes the decision. Like most of the rest of the film, there’s little explanation or chatty, mannered acting about it. The perfect revolutionary, Iiris marches toward retribution without sentiment or agony. Forced to live in a world that would destroy her, she strikes back with courage and determination.

The oppressed people of this planet would make quite an impact if they did as Iiris does in this film. Sure, the bankers and the priests and the pundits wouldn’t like it, but they’re part of the problem, aren’t they? You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and you can’t light a fire without a match.