Shortly after completing “La petite marchande d’allumettes,” based on the tale by Hans Christian Andersen, Jean Renoir and Catherine Hessling divorced, making it the last film where Renoir directed Hessling. Here, the usually deficient Hessling charms, the whole film enchants, and Renoir achieves poignancy that is wedded to incomparable visual beauty.
Karen, who is starving, is tossed out of their shack by her folks in a winter storm close to Christmas so she can sell boxes of matches to bourgeois and high-toned passers-by in the street. She cannot sell even a single box but is entranced by a toy shop window decorated for the holiday; fake snow inside mimics the real stuff outside. Afraid to return home without sales money, Karen tries lighting a match for warmth; she eventually falls asleep in the snow. While she is gradually freezing, Karen dreams of herself dancing her way into the toy shop, where toy animals, a ballerina doll , and toy soldiers come to life. Death also appears, causing Karen and her special toy soldier to flee into the sky on a magic horse, with Death in pursuit. Karen dreams herself into a sunny field in spring, but the petals falling lightly upon her turn into harsh snowflakes as reality reasserts itself: a pleasantly resting Karen turns into her own corpse.
The frigid weather is a projection of the coldness of people who ignore or mock Karen as she tries to sell what little she can sell; it projects the chasm dividing high and low social classes. Thus it reflects human nature. On another level, though, it also suggests Nature, which assists Karen in dying by strengthening her connection to dreams and imagination. To us, her death is a brutal end; to Karen herself, it is a slipping away. For Karen, Nature does its best to compensate for the cruelty of human nature.
Renoir suggests the imminent blotting out of Karen’s young life: here, she is shown in front of an expanse of white; there, the camera behind her, she faces a black void.
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