Kati Outinen is a essential actor in the films of Finnish auteur, Aki Kaurismaki, appearing in no less than ten of them. She is one of the foremost exponents of the peculiar dead pan, minimalist acting found in Kaurismaki’s films, where he often prohibits the actors from moving their faces during scenes. The result of this paring back of the performances is that every little expression, every little movement, every little emotion carries great weight and power. No more is this true than in The Match Factory Girl.
Outinen plays Iris, a young woman who works at the local match factory in order to support her parents, who sit at home all day, unemployed, watching TV and smoking cigarettes. Their home and their lives are bleak, they rarely exchange a word and seem indifferent to their daughter’s existence. Outinen becomes set on getting a boyfriend for herself. However, a trip to the local nightclub proves fruitless as she sits on the sidelines, ignored, while one-by-one the girls sat around her pick-up dancing partners until she is left alone. It’s a painful scene which unfolds without dialogue. It is here though, that we first see Outinen’s tremendous economy of expression: she sits, clearly humiliated but she never shows us that directly, instead a simple but boiling intensity appears to well within her and we feel her awful self-consciousness after being rejected. Outinen seems able to locate just the right expression not only for the character in the scene but for the audience too, rendering the particular general – only truly great actors can do this. However, we sense that Outinen’s pain will be temporary, that this rejection will not put her off from accomplishing her goal.
She decides to buy a new dress as that might help her to attract a mate. There is a terrific moment which just about sums up Kaurismaki’s comically bleak oeuvres: when Outinen shows her new outfit to her parents, the father simply steps forward and slaps her across the face then calls her a whore. Unperturbed, Outinen goes to the nightclub wearing the new dress and this time she finds a man, Aarne, and spends the night with him. Later, she expects him to call her but he never does. So eventually she goes round to his place and he agrees to see her again. They go to a restaurant and it seems that Outinen has never been happier while eating dessert, until Aarne hits her with the brutal line; “now if you think we’ve got something lasting between us – you’re sorely mistaken. Nothing could touch me less than your affection.” Of course, the line has a certain retro quality but nonetheless it pierces right through to Outinen’s core. Her response is one of the finest moments of acting you’ll see anywhere in cinema: a look forms on her face which simultaneously suggests shock, amazement, shame, sadness, self-loathing and panic. And this all takes place in the space of a beat or two.
Outinen’s performance in The Match Factory Girl is a master class in the economy of expression, of revealing deep complexity simply and without the desire to manipulate, embellish or lie. It’s the kind of performance we see all too rarely in the cinema these days. The performance is also an example of how the “character” and the actor cannot be compartmentalised, that the notion that the actor “becomes” the character is nonsense, but rather the character, as scripted, is a mechanism for expressing the truth of the actor’s own personality. In that sense then, Outinen’s performance is not just an essential performance in the films of Aki Kaurismaki, but in all cinema.