TIFF Review: 'The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches'

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui amait trop les allumettes)
(Canada, 111 min.)
Written and directed by Simon Lavoie
Starring: Marine Johnson, Antoine L’Écuyer, Jean-François Casabonne
Programme: Contemporary World Cinema (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF
Horror thrives La belle province thanks to Simon Lavoie's utterly creepy The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches. This black and white nightmare is Quebecois gothicism to the core.  It's creepy,  arty, and literary cinema as Lavoie strips back the popular novel by Gaétan Soucy and gives a thoroughly visual interpretation of its tale of madness. The film will shake you.

Lavoie, half of the duo behind last year's radical shapeshifting winner for Brest Canadian film Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, once again delivers the most formally audacious Canadian film at the festival.  TIFF- goers mourning the loss of the festival's Vanguard programme will be happy to know that the spirit of the artfully sick and twisted endures in a rebellious horror flick that bears flavours of the underground and the avant-garde.

Lavoie's film tells of a young girl (Marine Johnson) who raised as a boy but becomes self-aware of her gender thanks to her budding breasts and boiling hormones. She and her brother (Antoine L'Ecuyer) live with their father (Jean-François Cacabonne) on an isolated farm in rural Quebec. Their clothes and home recall the fashions of early settler days, but when a motorcycle rides into town and brings word of a census, the little girl's colonial lifestyle quickly resembles a rural confinement akin to Room. Growing up without any awareness of the work outside the farm, the little girl gradually learns to grasp the abuse she suffers and the violence she needs to escape. Like Jack in Room, the girl lives in an environment of warped perspectives and sheltered fantasies. But while her world has a much larger physical geography than the four walled room in which Old Nick keeps Jack and his mum in captivity, the girl's world is one of equally restrictive isolation and tightly guarded control. Johnson surprises with her captivating near-silent performance that conveys a maelstrom of lost innocence and tortured youth.  

The Little Girl who Was Too Fond of Matches draws upon Quebec's deeply rooted relationship with the Catholic Church as the girl discovers more about the world in and around the farm. The repressive and patriarchal society weighs down on her and her brother alike. A brutal rape appears near the beginning of the film and as the baby within the girl grows and grows, Lavoie's film introduces the audience to a family that eats itself from within by failing to encourage gender equality and sex education. This is also a family that keeps a third sibling, scarred film head to toe with horrific burns, locked up in the barn like the family pup. The Soissons are a macabre crew worthy of Leatherface's family tree.

Narratively and thematically, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches sits comfortably within a tradition of rebellious Quebecois films that interrogate the status quo and challenge the norms, practices, and values that form the bedrock of the provincial ethos. Aesthetically, though, there are few films quite like The Little Girl in Canadian film. Lavoie's hypnotic and nightmarish vision feels most in parallel with auteur cinema coming out of Eastern Europe, like challenging genre films from Latvia and Estonia. It's bold and visionary as Lavoie experiments with lenses, perspectives, and points of view with cinematographer Nicolas Canniccioni who captures a feverish dreamscape of eerie black and white. Little Girl is an unsettling odyssey about making sense of a radically fragmented world. 

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.