“La petite marchande d’allumettes / The Little Match Girl” (1928)
(Originally posted on March 13, 2014)
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.
While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with changing the thematic emphasis from a source story, such alterations should form palpable consistency between the narrative’s events and the newly existent theme. “La petite marchande d’allumettes” suffers from an insoluble blending of Andersen’s parochial viewpoint-especially in the finale -and Renoir’s decision to turn the same sequences into a parade of fantasy unrelated to the character of Karen (the name given to heretofore unnamed match girl) culminating in an inappropriate and blatantly “arty” stab at visual poetry with a wisp of her hair becoming entangled on a cross standing over her grave turning into a blossoming of flowers. This would be a heavy-handed bit of symbolism in the best of circumstances, inexcusably empty of meaning when applied at the end of a story which in a very short running time veers wildly from social drama to fantasy to Byronesque symbolism without finding a common foothold on which all of the disparate find, at best, tenuous companionship, and which negates the spiritual aspects of the story for a more severe (though fantastical) descent into hopeless death. (The difference between Andersen’s ending and Renoir’s is important as Andersen, despite his heroine’s expiring, intended her fate to be an ascension into a state of Grace, whereas, despite Renoir’s eleventh hour grasp at transcendent profundity, Karen’s death is merely the consequence of overexposure to the elements.
The actual callous passivity of her passing (if put into the context of earlier sociological finger wagging ) is represented with the curiously unfeeling line of dialogue on the intertitles- “How stupid to think you can warm up with matches”, as opposed to the more sympathetic line in Andersen’s story. It’s a particularly cold hearted acknowledgement of Karen’s demise that Renoir renders, an unnecessary gesture which is meant to compliment earlier disparate societal snubs of Karen (as a matter of fact, she has the opportunity to sell matches to one particular socialite, though out of convenience fails to notice his interest); a dismissive line meant to shed a generally uncaring light on the disposable nature of the dispossessed. Andersen’s story is cruel in the conditions under which its heroine exists, but in his replication of events Renoir favors a harsher denouement (though admittedly, the mortal outcome for the girl is the same) in which the redemptive spiritually-based outcome is ignored in favor of a more concrete and agnostic approach.
However, in taking Renoir’s ending at face value, this leaves the question as to the true nature of Karen’s hallucinations. In the original story, the girl’s visions are fueled initially by images of comfort taken directly from her views of holiday delights through shop windows, culminating in a welcoming vision of her late grandmother, though it is questionable- given the Christian undercurrent of the story -if Andersen intends the apparition of the grandmother to be taken literally or on faith; the culminating passages suggesting the former. The difference in Renoir’s version is startling, with illusions beginning with similarly sighted observed holiday elements, but quickly evolving into an active scenario in which Death gives pursuit in a relentless sequence of flying horses until brought to a halt with the aforementioned grave site ministrations. Since the match girl’s hallucinations are born of her own observations (a Christmas tree, a feast of food)and later her own personal experience (her grandmother), leading to her correlating spiritual epiphany, then what of the cinematic Karen? From whose mind are these fantastical images supposed to have sprouted, Karen or Renoir himself, and if the lengthy sequence- which one would presume would spring from the character’s own imaginative extensions -presents a dark equine pursuit through cloud formations, just what in her experience would lead to such an apparition? Also, if the fantasy sequence is to be taken at face value, then just who is imagining the transformation of the cross into flower blossoms at her burial site? If Karen is imagining the moment of her own passing, and it is to be taken as a simultaneous literal occurrence- as in Andersen’s story -the continuation of the dreamscape with the concluding symbolism becomes illogical from the film’s point-of-view.
All of this is contributory to the wild variance of making the short film feel as if either the wrong reels had been placed in the projector mid-stream or that Jean Renoir has no handle on his material and that in adapting this deceptively simple story, his interest was muddled by a desire to experiment (clearly within his early films especially in “Sud un air de Charleston” he displays a fleeting interest in Surrealism, though his thinking is far too conventional to maintain this a continued course of expression) with cinematic effects rather than in concentrating on the human story within the fantasy.