Two siblings brought up in rural Quebec by a father who forbade any contact with the outside world have some serious growing up to do after his death in The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes). Shot in artful black-and-white by cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni, who also filmed 2016’s Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, which Lavoie co-directed with Mathieu Denis, this is art house fare that’s challenging but also rewarding, with the oblique early-going giving way to an increasingly clear picture as the two orphaned youngsters try and come to terms with the world and their dark past. After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, this should travel to many other festivals, while pickups in especially cinephile and/or Francophone territories are a possibility.
A disheveled and cantankerous man simply referred to as Father (Jean-Francois Casabonne of The Ring) lives in an isolated home somewhere in the Canadian woods in what looks like the 1930s or thereabouts. He has two children, both in their teens. One is a boy (the intensely focused Antoine L’Ecuyer of The Sound of Trees), simply called Son. He also has a sibling, a short-haired young woman (impressive newcomer Marine Johnson) who, somewhat mysteriously, is referred to as Brother by Son. The reasons behind this aren’t immediately clear, but it does emerge that Father has her bind her breasts and tells her that her “wee-wee fell off” when she was little, so he is clearly hiding her sex on purpose.
Indeed, for a part of even seasoned art house audiences, watching the first act might be a frustrating experience because the material raises many more questions than it answers. Why do they live in isolation and does Father chase away possible intruders? What exactly is the purpose of the strange religious rituals in their private chapel and the forbidden books that can’t be read? And perhaps most disturbingly, what happens in the shed, where what looks like a Gollum-like creature is kept in a cage?
But as the film progresses, the narrative fog starts to lift and it becomes clear that Lavoie’s rather liberal adaptation of Soucy’s novel always mirrors the awareness and comprehension — or conspicuous lack of it — of the girl of the title. During her father’s life, she’s simply had to obey his orders without asking questions, and since they live in such isolation, it is not only her knowledge but even her experience of life and the world that is very limited. All this starts to change after Father has hanged himself and the siblings are suddenly left to fend for themselves and to decide whether to continue as they did before or break the old rules and make new ones. In a particularly gruesome scene, Brother thinks nothing of sawing off his father’s leg because the box he wants to use for a coffin is too small. Instead of simply offering a Gothic-horror moment — though the film is occasionally a Gothic horror movie, too — Lavoie uses the scene to illustrate to what extent the boy’s moral compass has been warped.
The family’s strange relationship with especially death is connected to the past and to the goings-on in the shed. How all this fits together is slowly unraveled through visual clues about the past that are hidden in and around the house — production designer Marjorie Rheaume and costume designer Francesca Chamberland have done an incredible job that really helps propel the narrative forward — and just a few flashbacks that seem to happen in the girl’s head. Lavoie also ensures that Matches is not just a mystery that explains why the Soissons, as they turn out to be called, did what they did and do what they do. Instead, the director has crafted a film that charts the belated coming of age of a young woman who has to learn to become independent in a world dominated by outside male forces. And her journey here is cast as a necessary emancipation before she can take care of someone else. Her fraught relationship with her father, the unequal power relations and her forced sexual bond with her brother and the curiosity and sense of protection she provokes in a fresh-faced land surveyor from a nearby village (Alex Godbout) are all elements that help her on her long and arduous journey toward a life she can say she really owns.
Production company: GPA Films
Cast: Marine Johnson, Antoine L’Ecuyer, Jean-Francois Casabonne, Alex Godbout, Laurie Babin-Fortin
Director-screenwriter: Simon Lavoie, freely inspired by the novel by Gaetan Soucy
Producer: Marcel Giroux
Director of photography: Nicolas Canniccioni
Production designer: Marjorie Rheaume
Costume designer: Francesca Chamberland
Editor: Aube Foglia
Music: Ivo Blaha
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Seville International