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The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl

A Short film by Jean Renoir

Produced by Les Films Jean Renoir

Production year : 1928

  • Contents

Actors (2)

Production and distribution (2)

Executive Producer :

Les Films Jean Renoir

Film exports/foreign sales :

StudioCanal Films Limited


A young match girl  falls into a dream state in which she enters a kind of giant toy shop, and interacts with the toys, including the captain of the wooden soldiers, but is then menaced by Death, who appears out of a jack-in-the-box wearing a kind of “pirate” outfit with a Death skull on his hat. A chase ensues, and the girl “falls back” to reality, where onlookers (and the audience) find her frozen to death in the alley after she has used up all the matches she had to keep warm.


The Little Match Girl is another short silent film from Jean Renoir, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fable and starring Renoir's wife Catherine Hessling as a poor match seller named Karen. She is sent out by her family on a cold night to sell matches, but she can't find any business and she suffers in the cold and the snow, assaulted by boys with snowballs, ignored by potential upper-class customers, freezing in the dark as she peers into bright, warm, lively shops and pubs where people laugh and eat and drink. It is a maudlin but nonetheless effective piece of humanist social realism, contrasting the suffering of the poor match girl, who no one cares about, against the security and comfort of those who pass her by in the snowy streets. There is one especially potent shot in which Karen is scrambling around on the ground in front of a restaurant, desperately gathering up her wares after they've been knocked away by the boys who pelted her with snowballs. A policeman arrives and chases the boys away, then walks towards Karen. Renoir remains at ground level with Karen, on all fours in the snow, and behind her the policeman's clean, shiny boots pass by, then stop, not to help Karen, but to talk with the restaurant's owner, who had been hit with one snowball when she briefly came outside to yell at the boys for hitting her windows. The shot is utterly heartbreaking: Karen in despair on the ground, while the figure of authority, his boots in the background of the shot, ignores her to comfort the comparatively uninjured upper-class shop owner.

At around the short's halfway mark, this mix of hard realism with broad sentimentality — the match girl peering wistfully through the frosted windows of a restaurant — gives way to the crude effects and whimsical tone that Renoir also utilized in Charleston Parade. At this point, it would seem, the film becomes a surreal fantasy, a dreamlike imagining as the match girl, freezing in the snow, desperately trying to warm herself with the tiny flickering flames of her matches, instead dreams of happier things. She steps into a giant-sized toy shop, where she wanders among the toys as they come to life: ballet dancers dance, a shaggy stuffed dog balances a ball on its nose, and toy soldiers march in formation. The rough stop-motion animation effects are compelling, but what's really interesting and affecting about this diversion is that Renoir doesn't allow the fantasy to be a complete escape from reality. Although these animations are charming and playful, they are also poignant; as Karen is dancing through gauzy white curtains or juggling, or watching the toy soldiers march, it's impossible to forget that she's actually lying in the snow, alone and forgotten, losing herself in hallucinations brought on by starvation and frostbite.

In that respect, even as the film becomes a fantastical farce on its surface, it retains its edge of despairing realism: Karen has chosen to retreat from reality rather than face it any longer. It is a film above giving up, about losing one's grip on life, and this sobering undercurrent runs through even the most playful moments of the fantasy segment. Towards the end of this sequence, Renoir turns back to darker territory, introducing a toy soldier with a skull and crossbones on his hat and bone ribbing on his jacket. That's right: this film features Death as a toy soldier, pursuing Karen and her protector, another soldier, in a horse chase across the sky. The film's denouement transitions smoothly from the whimsy and escapism of Karen's wistful fantasy into a startlingly poignant depiction of the journey into the afterlife, as the dark soldier, this icon of death, throws Karen's lifeless body across his black mount and rides through the clouds with her. The rough superimpositions of these images lend a quality of eerie minimalism to the fantasy's final moments — culminating in Death, previously a forbidding, villainous figure, tenderly laying Karen down on a cliff edge beside a cross which then morphs into a budding bush. Then, the return from fantasy to the cold harshness of reality in the film's final moments only underscores that even this romantic vision of death is far from reality: the truth is sadder, more pathetic, without the heroic adventure of Karen's dream death. This is a poignant, moving, evocative short from Renoir, the cinema's premier humanist delivering a powerful depiction of how social class dictates life and death.

Source :

Full credits (5)

Adapter/dialogue writer :

Jean Renoir

Producers :

Jean Tedesco, Jean Renoir

Editor :

Jean Renoir

Author of original work :

H.C. Andersen

Directors of Photography :

Jean Bachelet, Jean Storm

Technical details

Short film

Production language :


Production country :


Original French-language productions :


Nationality :

100% French (France)

Production year :


Runtime :

40 min

Color type :

Black & White