Iiris leads a bleak existence. She has a dead end job working on the assembly line at a match factory. What meager wages she earns all goes toward supporting her mother and stepfather, with who she lives in a small, crowded house. They largely ignore her unless she does something against their sensibilities, which leads to them exacting emotional and physical abuse toward her. And Iiris is also ignored socially, because of her overall somber demeanor and the fact that she has no money to make herself look more attractive to men. She believes her life will change with her chance meeting with well-off businessman, Aarne. However, what she believes is the start of a possible relationship with Aarne was solely a one-night stand for him, he who has no intention of ever seeing her again. The aftermath of this encounter with Aarne leads to Iiris making some decisions of how she will deal with her bleak life.
The final flights that marked the closing moments of Shadows in Paradise and Ariel, with their crisply composed shots of ships sailing off into the unknown, were a luxury that the protagonist of the final film of Aki Kaurismäki’s “Proletariat Trilogy” could not afford. The Match Factory Girl (1990) is easily the darkest of the three, yet it is still thematically tied to the others. Though he had not set out to make a trilogy, when Kaurismäki began planning to shoot The Match Factory Girl, he proclaimed it, along with the earlier two, as “dedicated to the memory of Finnish reality.” A typically sardonic, outsider’s pronouncement, but also a key to unlocking the oddly nostalgic, wistful strain throughout these films, in which financially unstable people struggle—amusingly, hopelessly—to get by in a world that no longer seems to have use for them.
The opening sequence of The Match Factory Girl brilliantly illustrates this notion of working-class superfluousness. In a series of short, terse shots, a machine chugs along at a swift pace, breaking down tree logs into packets of matches with graceful, Kubrickian efficiency. Finally, we see a human, Iris (Kati Outinen), although she has the mien of an automaton, checking the boxes as they are conveyed by. Iris’s obsolescence is reiterated in her drab home life, where her mother and stepfather only acknowledge her to tear her down, and in her stabs at dating, which mostly consist of not being asked to dance at a local nightclub. Kaurismäki details all of this with his usual acerbic spareness, yet here he takes his style to its unyielding, bitter end. There is indeed dark humor in The Match Factory Girl, but one must nearly squint at the screen to see it.
The film grows increasingly grim as it inexorably trudges along to its conclusion, but in its ultimate misery it finds both catharsis and gallows humor. If Shadows in Paradise and Ariel deconstructed the romantic comedy and film noir, respectively, then The Match Factory Girl could be considered Kaurismäki’s maddeningly subdued version of the revenge melodrama, casting Outinen’s dour nobody, with her receding chin and prominent upper lip, as a sort of ridiculous, minimalist Charles Bronson. When she metes out her own brand of justice to those who have wronged her, Kaurismäki frames her actions dispassionately, as though they are the natural outgrowth of a repressive social system, one in which extermination is a transaction as bloodless as the money exchanges he frequently films in pointed close-up.
The film never succumbs to total darkness, however: dabs of ironic color stand out amid the gray-toned fatalism, from the pink flowery dress Iris covets to the glass of bright orange soda she orders in the bar. These moments of visual incongruousness exemplify Kaurismäki’s awkward charm, a madcap miserabilism that has marked all his subsequent successes, from Drifting Clouds (1996) to the Academy Award–nominated The Man Without a Past (2003). His influence can be felt in the works of, among others, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. As eclipsed as Kaurismäki might remain to most filmgoers, he’s left a subtle but unmistakable imprint on contemporary cinema.