Finns offer chilling look at an unfeeling society

April 29, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Thoreau said, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation," and he hadn't even seen "The Match Factory Girl." What did he know?

This Finnish gloom-bomb is yet another example of the unutterable moroseness of those who live under the magically depressive powers of the midnight sun. It plays tonight at the Baltimore Film Festival, and chocolate-coated suicide pills will be handed out immediately afterward (OK, that's a joke).

Seventy minutes of deadpan repressed fury, the film is about a young woman named Iris (Kati Outinen) who is held in utter contempt by her society. She is indeed a match factory girl, tending a chattering demon of a machine that turns out thousands of wooden matches with the mechanical precision and remorseless disinterest of the truly soulless. Surely the severe and depressing imagery of this machine clank-clanking its way through the work cycle, putting little sticks in little rows, then the little rows into the little boxes, which it then wraps and shunts down a chute for shipping, represents the highly organized society that does not give a damn about its citizens. You don't have to be a big smart movie critic to get that.

Ungratified by a workplace devoid of human contact, unloved by her mother and stepfather, Iris begins to wander bars, desperate for human contact. Eventually, she meets a businessman who somewhat coldly seduces her, then leaves her a note and a tip and never calls. She calls him. He takes her to a fancy restaurant and then tells her she makes him sick and asks her to leave.

Why she doesn't stab him in the throat with a fork is the movie's biggest mystery, but ever the obedient and servile victim, she trundles back to the nothingness of her life. Soon she discovers she's pregnant and in the movie's most heartbreaking scene, she writes him a letter, exposing her sadly naive and sentimental view of life. For her troubles, she is even more savagely rejected.

At last she gets mad. Her chosen method of vengeance, though underdramatized, is much like the society that rejected her: remote, blank and pitiless. It's less vengeance than extermination.

Aki Kaurismaki directed this chilly scenario with utter objectivity and lack of pretense. Only once does he indulge, when Iris learns she's pregnant and the camera melodramatically zooms in. Otherwise the film unfolds in hyper-realism, without a lot of fretwork, acquiring power by the very literalness of its telling.


What:"The Match Factory Girl."

When: 7 tonight.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

Admission: $6; $5 for film forum, museum members.

Call: (410) 889-1993.

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