Jean Renoir’s film version of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1854 story “Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne” (“The Little Match Girl”) alters the original story considerably by featuring the casting of Renoir’s then-wife Catherine Hessling in the title role. Hessling, already proving herself a disastrous muse in Renoir’s ruinously expensive film version of Emile Zola’s “Nana” in 1926, here takes on a role for which she is, generously, at least fifteen years too old, nor does the forced theatricality of her acting style, which usually becomes both overbearing and obnoxious, have the ability to convey the requisite waif-like delicacy necessary for the role, unless it is substantially reconceived as having the requisite fragility of a tumbling boulder, though in this particular circumstance- perhaps due to exhaustion over her unrelenting mugging and grotesque cavorting in the Zola epic- Hessling finds a new method of intrusive overplaying by massive underplaying, a unique experience in which, while playing a starving young girl, the decades of overripe heft, highlighted by her fleshy mug, contradicts any reasonable facsimile of either a young girl or someone who hasn’t been sated with three squares a day. Nor does she seem capable of conveying the simplest of emotional states; so stone faced is the actress that she gives the impression of being prematurely flash frozen.
However, the film’s greater failure comes from a mistaken conceptual alteration of the nature of the original story’s hypothermic hallucinations- the very visions which impart either the ethereal aspect to the original story or the strictly phantasmagorical to Renoir’s film vision, where spiritual comfort makes way for gimmicky effects laden fantasy beholden more to E.T.A. Hoffmann than to Andersen, with the addition of needless and extended banal editorial demarcations on class privilege.
Andersen’s brief story, despite its unbroken solemnity, is a particularly hopeful story of the salvation of the innocent through heavenly ascension despite its mortal surface fatalism; a young girl escaping the abuse of home by wandering the frigid streets on New Year’s, pathetically attempting and failing to earn money by selling matches she eventually succumbs to hunger and the cold while using the matches in pathetic attempts to stave off the winter elements. Each match ignites a new fevered hallucination until she sees her deceased grandmother, “the only person who had loved her and who was now no more” who guides her to heavenly salvation.
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