Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Alejo Moguillansky's The Little Match Girl (2017) is showing December 17 – January 15, 2019 exclusively on MUBI.
In theater anything is possible. There are no set rules, and just one perquisite: Genius. Perhaps that is why Chekhov had such immense tenderness for actors, knowing how easy it was to fall into the infinite gap between expectations and reality, ideal and circumstance. Chekhov, of course, wrote about the provinces, which furnished him a rich cast of secondary characters. Now Argentine filmmaker Alejo Moguillansky mines similar material in his latest feature, The Little Match Girl. Moguillansky’s film takes place in Buenos Aires, but do not be fooled. It is not the vainglorious megalopolis we associate with its 19th century splendor, but rather an increasingly battered, economically stretched, exhausted city that in its myriad deceptions shares an existential funk with the Chekhovian social landscape.
At the story’s center, Walter (Walter Jakob) is a struggling, often perplexed stage director, in charge of figuring out what world-renowned German composer, Helmut Lachenmann (playing himself), wants to do in his postmodern take on Christian Andersen’s grim tale. Lachenmann descends on Buenos Aires and soon the frustrated orchestra fumbles under his direction. A labor strike starts brewing—a transit strike soon begins, paralyzing the city—and the whole endeavor might just go to naught.
Economic disaster is afoot since an early scene: Walter has a coffee with Lachenmann, for which he then cannot pay. He is flustered, as is his partner, Marie, played by Maria Villar, and they bicker over who will take care of their little girl, Cleo (Cleo Moguillansky). With her sweet-faced, slightly waifish looks, Villar is a fantastically watchable actress; she has ignited many an Argentine film, notably in Matías Piñeiro’s dramas. In Little Match Girl, her Marie is a steadfast, no-nonsense enabler, and ultimately, as Walter’s bafflement with his artistic role increases, the true mastermind. But first, constant financial distress has her juggling multiple roles. Without babysitter, she brings her daughter to work. Cleo busies herself (naturally) with movies, while Marie assists famous Argentine pianist Margarita Fernández (playing herself). A former orchestra employee, when Marie betrays her employer’s trust, it is out of passion for music.
If this all sounds rather sad, consider this: Audiences were known to sob at Chekhov’s plays, but he insisted that he primarily wrote comedies. And he was right. The world he portrays is full of social, economic turmoil, but we still delight in his characters’ self-deceptions. Moguillansky also sets up his film in a minor key: Neither a melodrama nor a farce, it is certainly a work of sublime irony. As the film opens, we are told what to expect: There will be “an orchestra playing a mad tune” (Moguillansky never tires of taking digs at atonal music), “a donkey,” and “union officials playing union officials.” As with Chekhov, these are no conditions for greatness. The world conspires against Walter, though he also lacks a spark.
Somewhere between enchantment and reality, the charm of this mini-operetta lies in skillfully negotiating whim and concreteness. To this end, Moguilansky plays loose mixage: Lachenmann and Fernández are “playing themselves,” but just what does that mean in a fiction film? Then there are the conflations of names—Walter as Walter, Maria as Marie (in fact, when she first meets Fernández, Marie’s CV says “Maria Villar,” as if she were not just applying for a job but auditioning for a role)—and the fact that the director’s own daughter plays in the film. This only adds poignancy to the scenario: When in a later scene we find little Cleo sleeping safely on stage at the grand theater, after being presumed lost in the city, as her overworked parents could not keep up with their parental duties, we experience a momentary sense of bliss. Uncertain of Lachenmann’s bloated, abstract undertaking, we can be sure of one thing: The little family drama ends well.
Not all is set in a light key. In the background, there looms the shadow of Art, with a capital A. When Lachenmann first explains to Walter his grand design for the opera, a large screen reflected in the café’s mirror shows a film playing. There is a striking contrast between the café’s coziness, the simplicity of María sitting at an adjacent table asking for a cold chocolate for Cleo, and both Lachenmann’s pompous intro and the Technicolor lushness of the film playing on the screen (to emphasize this contrast, the mirror that reflects the film has a heavy, baroque gilded frame). The café scene is familiar, domestic; the screen in the back shows a western. Female/male, small/grand, Moguillansky keeps the binaries at play, though he will also subvert them numerous times, as Marie proves to have the upper hand. Thus comes the delicious scene in which Marie, her daughter again with her at work, a stern Fernández clearly concerned, locks herself in her employer’s kitchen, to dictate creative ideas to her hubby.
It is because of these two simultaneous scales—one grand, the other minor—that we do not balk when Moguillansky adds, with fictive gusto, a fake strand about Gudrun Ensslin, a member of the Red Army Fraction, having supposedly sent to Fernández a passionate letter about music from her jail cell, shortly before her death. A melodramatic gesture, it also testifies to the fact that, even in most dire straits, we want to believe in Art. Its redeeming qualities. At the same time, when Lachenmann makes some grandiose claims about art’s social purpose, Fernández’s cuts him off: His is child’s play.
Moguillansky, however, does not dwell on harshness. However oddly deployed, Ensslin’s figure nevertheless reminds us that art is valuable for the kind of people it inspires us to be. A tough muse, it instills a degree of inspired grit. Or as Lenin said—in an anecdote immortalized by Gorky, so don’t quote me, or the film, which has Marie deliver part of Gorky’s line: Music makes us “say nice and stupid things, and stroke the heads of those who, living in such a foul hell, can create such beauty.”