The Little Matchgirl: A Synesthetic-esque Experience
Setting paradigmatic music to breathtaking illustrations was the premise for Walt Disney’s third feature film, Fantasia (1940). Even though the film began as a reboot for Disney’s beloved Mickey Mouse, it developed, with the help of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, into the now-classic film. Fantasia’s reception, however, was lukewarm; critics praised the film, but the general public found it to be rather highbrow and audiences longed for the company’s more traditional films, like its predecessors: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940). The lack of acceptance for Fantasia—Walt Disney’s most personal film—left its creator heartbroken for the rest of his life. Through reissues, the film found success in the latter part of the twentieth century, and Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, revitalized the idea and produced Fantasia 2000 (1999), which extended the original concept of an ever-changing Fantasia. An adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Matchgirl (2006) was produced for a third Fantasia film, which, unfortunately, never saw the light of day. Andersen’s tale recounts the last moments of the matchgirl’s life: desperate to keep warm, the girl lights the matches she intends to sell, and envisions a better life in the vivid flames before her. Tragically, the matchgirl succumbs to the brutality of the winter around her, but is brought to heaven by a corporeal version of her loving grandmother. The Little Matchgirl, directed by Roger Allers, delves into the very same vein that Walt Disney tapped into with his 1940 feature film. The stark and brilliant unification of music and images, set to Andersen’s devastating tale, illustrates the importance of synchronization between two sensory experiences: that is, an auditory and visual synesthesia.
The Little Matchgirl’s presence—the weight of its emotional pull—is placed, for the most part, on the chosen piece of music; the music for this piece is Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D Major: Third Movement – Notturno (Andante). One must remember that this short is dialogue-less, and so the non-diegetic music chosen is given an even higher importance. Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, therefore, acts as the dialogue in a language that anyone can understand. True, the language is not that of the spoken word, but it more closely resembles that of an emotional language. For some animation authorities, such as Ülo Pikkov, there is apparently some sort of detachment between the music of a piece and the corresponding visuals, at least for the audience. Pikkov (2010) states that “[d]ue to the abstract nature of music, audiences perceive music and visual elements of a film not as whole but as separate, although mutually complementary phenomena” (p. 164). It is entirely true that these two elements are “mutually complementary,” but it appears that, for The Little Matchgirl, it is more than just mutually complementary; there is a higher significance of the music due to the fact that both dialogue and sound effects are absent. “The harmonious relationship between the visual design and sound of the animated film,” relates Pikkov (2010), “is the foundation of its fidelity and the measure of its artistic quality” (p. 172). Whereas some audience members feel some dissociation between the music and the visuals, the explicit combination of the two helps to construct the film’s diegesis. Allers, like his predecessors, bridged the gap between abstract music and visual elements, creating an emotional gravitas that immediately allows the viewer to emotionally invest within the short, its story, and its protagonist.
Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 serves as an understanding of the matchgirl’s thoughts. The piece gives an almost eerie and melancholic tone to the story, yet there is still brisk excitement and a deep warmth that pervades during the matchgirl’s visions; the richness of the lower ranges of the cellos and basses creates a brooding and hopeless sentiment, and the higher strings construct the feeling of warmth and cheer, an almost believable alternate reality. With this strict divide, it makes sense that the mournful sections of the short—where the matchgirl is trying to survive her harsh reality—are largely dominated by the lower strings; likewise, when the matchgirl envisions a better life—one with luxury, warmth, food, and her affectionate grandmother—we are more likely to hear the violins and violas. The two distinct voices, melancholy and hope, remain relatively separate through the entirety of the short. However, once the matchgirl tries to make her visions persist, the voices clash together. As the matchgirl struggles for that hope, that dream of being reunited with her grandmother, attacks of melancholic symphony ultimately lead us back to her demise. Once the matchgirl has passed, the upper strings reconvene and the melody becomes hopeful, as we now understand, and easily see, that her grandmother, in corporeal form, carries the matchgirl off into a glowing other-world, presumably heaven. The last reverberating note, held out in a soothing vibrato, translates into the final message of a better afterlife for our protagonist.
The visual imagery of The Little Matchgirl elucidates the immense struggle our protagonist faces. Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, during the times when child labor and exploitation were still in practice, we see the matchgirl in a rather bleak and oppressive landscape. The color palette of the short is polarized: there is that of an unsaturated grey that completely washes out the entirety of the scene, and there is the warm, saturated oranges and yellows that appear whenever the matchgirl has her visions. Just as the String Quartet No. 2 illustrates the matchgirl’s emotions, the color palette effectively explicates her physical and psychological state. In the grey portions of the short, the matchgirl is quite alone; even though there is an abundance of people walking around her, the matchgirl remains an outsider, the abject “other” that society does not understand or accept. The grey haze that consumes her life, therefore, makes the matchgirl an endearing character and we are drawn to her because of her readily apparent hardships. The other side of the color palette’s spectrum appears when the matchgirl has visions of what she desires. This is a complete reversal and a welcome departure from her desolate surroundings. Unlike Alice, who creates an imaginary world out of boredom, the matchgirl creates this vivaciously colorful world out of necessity. The saturated colors, thus, depict the warmth in which she so craves: that of physical warmth, but also of an emotional warmth in the form of her grandmother. The short’s color palette—stark grey and bright orange—exemplifies the matchgirl’s reality and alternate reality, respectively.
The framing of the shots, the shot angles adopted, and the editing pace also allows for an understanding of the matchgirl’s struggles. For about the first two minutes of the short, the matchgirl is usually seen either from a long shot or a medium shot; this immediately gives the effect of severe isolation, especially when she is the solitary figure within the frame. The distance between the matchgirl and the camera not only represents this isolation, but also the severity of her emotional wellbeing. The majority of the shot angles employed during the first few minutes are high angles, looking down upon the matchgirl. Again, this adds to the isolation the she is feeling. It also puts the viewer into a position of power: she is made even smaller, lonesome, and unimportant in this society. The camera moves in much closer, giving a child-like attention to detail, as the matchgirl’s visions begin. Even though the viewer is an observer, we are able to latch on to and understand her desires more easily when close ups and extreme close ups are employed. As her visions increase, the camera pulls back to fully embrace and experience the lavish world which she has created in her mind. As the short switches between her reality and her alternate reality, the editing becomes more quickly paced and more rapid cutting ensues as the music intensifies until she is finally reunited with her grandmother, the time in which the little matchgirl is extinguished. The pace of the scene dramatically slows as the viewer now begins to appreciate why the matchgirl strove to reconnect with some source of love and happiness, even if it is only in her mind; the little matchgirl’s suffering is finally at an end and the viewer can now cope with her death, knowing that she will lovingly be taken care of by her grandmother as her slumped over body concretely remains in that unforgiving reality that she has finally escaped. Not only does the music and color palette reflect the matchgirl’s life, but the technical aspects of filmmaking, namely camera placement and editing, do as well.
Andersen’s The Little Matchgirl is an undeniably devastating story, one that is only slightly changed for this cinematic adaptation. The unifying elements, Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 and the classic hand-drawn visuals, ground the story, creating an emotionally driven piece that allows the viewer to fully immerse him- or herself into the psyche of the little matchgirl. The music and images are not mutually exclusive: each relies on the other to create this synesthetic-esque experience. Without one of these elements the short loses some of its emotional weight, and so both are necessary to best tell the matchgirl’s tale. Not only do these two aspects complement each other, but they also enhance the short and provide a deeper understanding of the matchgirl’s inner and outer world. The music transcends the viewer into her emotional state whereas the color palette elucidates the coldness of her reality and the warmth of her alternate reality. The cinematic techniques—framing, shot angles, and editing—also enriches and manipulates the viewer’s thoughts about the protagonist. With a separation between these two elements, a complete understanding of the matchgirl would be difficult to surmise without the use of dialogue or voice-over. However, the premise of the short is to create an understanding without those elements. Therefore, the synchronization between the corresponding music and visuals, alongside the chosen cinematic techniques, is paramount and highly effective.
Pikkov, Ü (2010). Animasophy: Theoretical writings on the animated film. (E. Näripea, Trans.). Tallinn, Estonia: Estonian Academy of Arts, Department of Animation. (Original work published 2010).