In an intriguing coincidence, the two most compelling foreign-language films to open in the Triangle recently concern the former Soviet Union and its connections to Europe. Apart from their exceptional quality, however, these movies are almost exact opposites. Unlike Alexander Sukorov’s ravishing Russian Ark, a Russian-made film that looks at Europe from the vantage point of high art and the imperial past, Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever is a Swedish production that offers a European perspective on the squalor of the post-Soviet era.
Lilya 4-Ever surprised me greatly. Although I liked Moodysson’s last film, Together, a droll, textured look at Swedish commune life in the ’70s, reading synopses of the new film led me to assume that it would be an earnest, essentially predictable social-problem movie. The surprise came when I started watching the film and saw that its renown stemmed from something that can’t be captured in any synopsis: brilliant filmmaking.
Indeed, this quality makes Lilya 4-Ever the kind of movie where my first inclination is to urge interested cinephiles, “Go see this film and don’t read anything further about it until you do. The less you know about its story and subject beforehand, the fresher and more powerful its revelations will be.” Yet, while that recommendation is meant seriously, I realize many prospective viewers will want to know more before they decide to devote an evening to Moodysson’s film. So I will proceed to say what the movie’s about, but with the caveat that no description of plot and theme begins to capture its enthralling and haunting effect.
Moodysson’s story opens in a neighborhood of drab, rundown high-rises left over from the Soviet era. The film was shot in Estonia, and no doubt viewers familiar with the Baltic states will see much about the drama that’s specific to that region. But in other ways, this could be a forlorn outpost anywhere in the former Soviet empire, and the way the film captures its look and atmosphere is immediately striking: The place offers no outward horrors, just the bleak aspect of a limbo where the sky is always gray and kids mechanically toss tin cans at rusty basketball hoops.
Lilya (Oksana Akinshina in a remarkable performance) is a pixieish blond teen with the kind of prettiness that could blossom into great beauty in years to come. When we meet her, she’s in a state of exhilaration and bridge-burning impertinence because, as she tells her envious schoolmates, she’s about to “move to the States.” Alas, that bubble quickly bursts. Lilya’s selfish, hard-bitten mother is moving to the United States to join her latest boyfriend, and at the last moment, she tells the girl she can’t go along but will be sent for later.
Lilya is crushed, and we suddenly see that underneath the budding young woman there’s a frightened kid. She says the Lord’s Prayer in front of a picture she cherishes, which shows an angel guiding a child. Her mother’s gruff sister, who’s supposed to look out for her, shows up and forcibly removes Lilya from her shabby apartment into one that’s even more derelict and rundown. Lilya quickly begins to run through the money that’s been left her, buying cigarettes and junk food.
As loneliness becomes numbingly routine, her main companion is a 12-year-old neighborhood boy named Volodya (Artyorn Bugacharsky), who’s perpetually on the run from an abusive father. Volodya is a great character and the kid who plays him is perfectly cast. Always clad in the same mismatched outfit of camouflage pants, ugly shirt and striped sweater, he’d like to get something romantic going with Lilya, but they both know he’s too young, so they sniff glue and trade dreams instead. She confides that she has the same birthday as Britney Spears. He, of course, wants to be Michael Jordan.
One night, Lilya goes to a disco with her friend Natasha (Elina Beninson), who turns a trick for a fast pile of cash. Back home, when Natasha’s father discovers the money, she lies and tells him that Lilya is the one who prostituted for money. This latest betrayal is followed by one even more devastating: Lilya’s mom writes the state authorities from America and renounces any claim to her daughter.
It is over halfway into the story before we get to its most crucial turn. Desperate for money, Lilya takes a page from Natasha’s book and turns a trick, and the john beats her. Walking home in the middle of the night, she gets a ride and a friendly assist from a handsome young guy named Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov), who drives a sleek red sports car. He asks her for a date and after they become close, he invites her to come to Sweden, where he promises her a new life and a good job. Andrei seems too good to be true, and of course, he is.
Landing in Sweden with the fake passport Andrei has supplied, Lilya is immediately taken captive by one of his criminal associates, locked in a sparsely furnished apartment, and forced to have sex with a endless succession of clients. She receives no money (her only pay are burgers from a McDonald’s drive-thru) and she can see no way out.
So, to reach what in conventional terms would be the point of Moodysson’s film, it’s about the epidemic prostitution of Eastern European girls in prosperous Western Europe, one of the unintended consequences of the collapse of Soviet Communism. Yet I resist the journalistic tendency to tag it so prosaically and conveniently, because Lilya 4-Ever really is more singular than any such labels can convey.
For one thing, the subject of prostitution almost seems to defy original treatment. We turn away in advance because we know all the usual approaches and attitudes, and I’m not talking about the vapidity of Hollywood fantasies like Pretty Woman. In European cinema, prostitution–as well as the more general topic of abused females–is typically treated as either case study or metaphor. The latter tendency, which has been particularly strong, has seen doomed heroines used to construct allegories that are alternately Christian (the films of Bresson), Marxist (Godard), or an auteurist melange of the two (various works by Fassbinder, Von Trier, Almodovar, the Dardennes brothers, etc.).
Many of the movies referred to above are justly regarded as masterpieces, yet they all turn the female victim into something of an abstraction, a marker in a predetermined scheme of meaning. The powerful difference of Moodysson’s film lies in the fact that it is so concrete, so alive in the moment. Indeed, it’s a shame to go into the theater thinking that you’re going to see a film about prostitution, or about a prostitute. Because for over half of its length–or, arguably, its entire length–it is really not about that at all. It is about Lilya.
One cannot imagine the film being made in just this way by, say, French filmmakers, who–their various virtues notwithstanding–seem congenitally prone toward rhetoric and, lately, a very flashy sort of naturalism. Moodysson’s non-rhetorical realism is so refreshing because it ushers us into this Estonian milieu and Lilya’s life as if those were the things–not the thematic hay that might be made of them–that really counted.
Part of the achievement here comes from a stylistic approach that is beautifully handled. Moodysson’s fluid, mobile camera has a very subtle and precise way of capturing his human subjects and the often tawdry but very believable spaces they inhabit.
Watching the movie, I was astonished to find its first hour virtually a note-perfect piece of film craft. In its last third, that distinction doesn’t quite hold. When Lilya reaches Sweden, the film begins to include fantasy/dream sequences that I won’t reveal except to say they have a pronounced metaphysical dimension. Here, it seems to me, Moodysson veers into the kinds of preordained symbolism that he earlier avoided. But if it’s a flaw, it is a minor and forgivable one in the context of a film that largely stays so lucidly and movingly focused on the here and now.
And in a way, one can understand Moodysson’s temptation to defer to the metaphysical. The Europe portrayed by this film seems to be facing not just a very cruel and dehumanizing social problem but, far worse, an advanced case of spiritual decay. If Russian Ark suggests a kind spiritual resurgence in Russia’s recovery of its past, Lilya 4-Ever–its opposite number in every way but brilliance–hints at the spiritual peril of moral losses that may already be irrecoverable.