La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes/The Little Match Girl (1928) B-
Once more Jean Renoir transports the viewers to a visually unique world where the director’s understanding of complex shot set ups and editing assist in the storytelling just as much as the script as acting. Ah, and surprise, surprise: Catherine Hessling stars in this one as well. This time around she has the titular role of the little matchstick girl, a poor little thing living in northern France who, on New Year’s Eve, must walk the streets of her town and sell small packages of matches to any passerby she can. It’s snowing and her poor little body is getting quite cold, but she hasn’t permission to return home until she has earned some doe. The evening doesn’t start off very well, and the situation almost descends into chaos once two no good boys begin a snowball fight with our lonely protagonist, causing her to drop the box to the ground, leaving its contents scattered around in the snow. The only harmonious moment in the evening is when she takes notice of a rather handsome looking chap walk by her. But having failed to live up to the task bestowed upon her, the girl makes use of what little shelter she can find and stays out in the cold for the night.
An unfortunate cocktail of hunger, fatigue and illness due to her countless hours out in the cold produce a remarkably lifelike and fantasy laden dream in which our heroine travels to a toy shop where inanimate objects spring to life and a handsome general (directly inspired by the handsome fellow she saw earlier that evening) to a platoon of toy giant toy soldiers whisks the matchstick girl off her feet. Not all is quaint and rosy in this magical toy shop, as a villainous and shadowy character shall challenge their harmonious setup. I think up until now in the marathon Renoir has been quite adept at infusing his visual wizardry with earned emotional resonance. I’ve been continuously impressed with his ability to transmit to the audience what the characters are suffering through or perhaps what they are enjoying, all the while leaving me speechless with some truly noteworthy camera and editing tricks. I think a lot of this sentiment boils down to my respect and admiration to the filmmakers who pulled off tricks and illusions with god knows what methods and technology back then, while so many of today’s artists in the film industry rely heavily on computer graphics. I’m not going to turn this into a rant against computer graphics because I’m certain that I have already given high praise to said technology on several occasions on the blog. But I think that, as a 21st century movie buff, there’s something to be said about films from the 1920s that pull off some of the magic Jean Renoir was capable.
However, The Little Match Girl was a slightly different experience for me. I was acutely aware of the brilliant visual cues for which I have no doubt the director performed back flips in order to accomplish, but this time I wasn’t enveloped by the underlying drama and sadness I believe the director wanted me to feel. The matchstick girl’s dreamland adventure is unquestionably interesting to look at, and I also felt the early scenes which depicted the poor creature’s plight were effective in setting up the story and the central character, but as the movie evolved I was but the witness to a lot of flare with little emotional punch.
To be frank, the increasingly elaborate special effects, while pleasing to the eye, seemed to overshadow what had taken place before. Now, I understand that the entire purpose of the dream sequence could be (not necessarily is) summed up as some escapism for the matchstick girl, an psychological and emotional experience which takes her away from the miserable, rotten life she is cursed with, even though this is all taking place in her mind. Everything she fears, like death and loneliness, as well as everything she longs for, such as joy, a companion and love, is personified by various fictional characters and objects via the machinations of her mind. Something about the sequence, I’m not sure what exactly, was refused to let me get in touch with the emotional undertones of her dream. The more sophisticated the trickery, the less I was invested with what was transpiring. As odd as this is going to sound, there were moments in The Little Match Girl when I felt the movie was a bit empty, à la Pirate of the Caribbean, where the bells and whistles are mighty fine to behold but I can’t remember why we’re here in the first place. Renoir seems more interested in producing the greatest circus act he can while forgoing his primary role as a storyteller. Sometimes that sort of gamble can pay off, but a director can incur great risk when treading down that sort of path. Unfortunately that risk becomes a reality, ironically enough through a dream sequence. I know the short film is based on a book, so I have to wonder whether this notion of the dream sequence being an extension of the girl’s existence is developed more fully in the source material.
Which leaves me to the climax of the film. The girl’s ultimate fate is clearly supposed to the viewer reach out on a deep emotional level. It’s simply one of those endings from which the filmmakers, as storytellers, must of wanted to extract as much emotional juice out of. At that point, because there had been a significant disconnect between myself and the film for the past 20 minutes or so, any significant reaction on my behalf had little chance of coming to be. Rather, the final moments of the film felt forced, the film hadn’t earned them. I also don’t think this is necessarily one of Catherine Hessling’s best performances. Don’t mistake me, she’s fine in the role, but we’ve seen better from her in other Renoir projects.
Whereas last week we took a look at a short story which really handled that ‘story’ part exceedingly well, this time Renoir falls into a trap of attempting too much with too little time on his hands. Quite honestly, I would like to see a feature length version of this story. I think that might give the affair more time to develop the character of the match girl and the significance of her visions. As it stands, I think what Renoir has left us with is a significant film in how far he pushed the limits of special and visual effects in his time, but somewhat of a hollow experience in the storytelling department. Here ends the short film portion of the marathon, so let us hope Renoir returns to form with the feature length efforts we shall study next.