Lilya 4-Ever Review
It's virtually impossible to discuss this film without revealing key elements of the plot, many of which have been widely discussed in the media. If you feel this will spoil the film, do not read this review
Every so often, a film comes along which is so emotionally overwhelming that it's almost impossible to watch. Breaking The Waves, Crash, Cries And Whispers and, earlier this year, Cronenberg's incredibly affecting Spider are all examples of this kind of movie, all of which left me shaken, heartbroken and, somehow, changed. It takes a great director to achieve this of course and, on the strength of his film Lilya 4-Ever, Lukas Moodysson has become a great director. A story of poverty, betrayal and child prostitution, the film is so horribly intense that it's only afterwards that you appreciate both its subtlety and its profound beauty.
Lilya (the extraordinary Oksana Akinshina) is a 16 year old girl living in a particularly deprived area of a hopelessly depressed Russia. Without any interest in school or any hope of a better life in her own country, she looks forward only to moving to America with her mother and her mother's boyfriend. But she receives a nasty surprise, the first of several, when she is abandoned by her mother - who promises to send for her later - and left in the care of her disinterested aunt. Abandoned to her own devices in a squalid flat, Lilya finds her only pleasures in glue sniffing with her friends and going out to a seedy nightclub with her friend, where the need for some kind of income leads her into casual prostitution. But Lilya's need for a spiritual life comes out in her Christian beliefs - she prays to a cherished picture of the Virgin and Child - and in her close friendship with a younger boy called Volodya (Bogucharsky). Her life, already on the verge of collapse, begins to fall apart when she meets the apparently charming Andrei (Ponomaryov) who dazzles her with tales of a better life in Sweden and promises to take her back there with him into a new existence of affluence and freedom. Lilya's dreams are cruelly shattered when she arrives in Sweden and finds herself trapped in a hell of prostitution and abuse at the hands of the sadistic pimp Witek (Neumann).
This is a horribly sad tale and Moodysson refuses to let the viewer off the hook. Not a single punch is pulled in presenting Lilya's nightmare but Moodysson has made the brave and heartening decision to present every act of abuse from Lilya's point of view. The 'clients' who use her are presented, with a single exception, as monstrous pigs, not because they have been dehumanised but because we are seeing them as Lilya sees them, without pity or objectivity. At no point is Akinshina shown naked, there are no gloatingly gratuitous shots of penetration or ejaculation, just a long series of abuses which are very hard to watch because Akinshina so brilliantly evokes the desolation and pain which they are causing. The 'pact' which the director formed with his actress at the start of shooting - that she would not be exploited - has paid enormous dividends because it allows this young actress to delve deeply into her character and consequently present the most appealing and believable teenager on screen for many years. Lilya isn't especially sympathetic at the start, being as obnoxious and difficult as any teenage girl can be, but when she begins to scream and beg for her foul mother not to leave her, it's impossible not to feel the anguish of a girl who thought she knew how to fend for herself but is suddenly thrust into the position of having to when she doesn't really want to. Every degradation that Lilya is subject to - from her aunt forcing her to move into a flat still rank with the filth of the old man who has just died there to the eventual sale into prostitution - is expressed with grace and subtlety by Akinshina and you become so emotionally committed to this character that her fall into a living hell makes you deeply angry. But Lilya isn't presented as a weak victim; she is feisty, funny and touchingly loyal to Volodya, at least until she mirrors her mother's betrayal by abandoning him for her illusory better life in Sweden. This performance is a triumph and deserves every award going - Oksana Akinshina will no doubt go on to do many great things but I doubt she will ever again do anything quite so truthful or important.
Moodysson has done many things right in this film, but his handling of the actors is nothing short of miraculous. Apart from the male clients, who are deliberately abstracted, there are no simple cliches here. Volodya is played to perfection by Artyom Bogucharsky, especially considering that he is required to spend half the film clad in a pair of plastic angels' wings. His calm rationality is vital to the emotional texture of the film, especially when he appears to Lilya in two dreams towards the end of the film. He's also very funny, casually reporting the latest rage of his hopeless father, and immensely touching, clutching the football given to him by Lilya while trying to persuade her that Andrei is not the saviour he appears to be. Pavel Ponomaryov is well cast as Andrei, as unpleasant a villain as you could imagine, and his smooth likeability is just what's needed for this charming monster. In the small role of Witek, the pimp who wrecks Lilya's childhood, Tomas Neumann has a small triumph. Witek is a true demon all right, but he's not a panto villain, rather a tired frustrated 'businessman' who thinks nothing of raping a 16 year old girl because it's all part of his job. One moment when, after hitting Lilya, he tenderly places his hand on her shoulder, is a masterstroke because it suggests, without undue emphasis, the conflicts which might conceivably exist inside such a horrendous man. His danger is all in reserve - we don't see his rape of Lilya or his vicious beating of her when she tries to escape because we don't need to. One look at his desperate face is all we need to know what he's capable of.
The film is hard to watch because it doesn't flinch from presenting horror but refuses to wallow in it or to give the slight relief of being disgusting - the explicit rape in Irreversible fails to genuinely disturb because in being so vivid it takes you out of the film and gives you the chance to go "Oh my god, this is horrible". The horrors are somehow so banal and everyday, that they seem all the more heartbreakingly cruel. Without trying to make a grand statement, Moodysson shows you that this happens to thousands of children every day in just as commonplace a manner as is depicted in the film. In other words, what shocks you is that, for many innocent victims, this is a normal way of life. In other hands, this film would be so depressing it became almost ludicrous, but Moodysson manages something very difficult. Not only is the film impeccably humanist ( a better word than moral), it's also one of the rare films to have a genuine spiritual committment. Moodysson is a practising Christian and he has emphasised that Lilya 4-Ever is a Christian film. It's hard, if you don't share his beliefs, to accept the redemption that he offers his sad, lost children, but if you take the step and accept his thesis, then the film is, oddly, not really depressing. It made me cry in a way I very rarely do - i.e. at what the characters are saying and doing rather than because the music was a bit sad - but I left the cinema feeling that I'd seen something about genuine redemption through suffering. You might not agree with Moodysson's beliefs, and you may even find his final image laughable rather than, as I did, profound, but you have to agree that this is a rare case of a director coming through with something difficult, personal and courageously true to his own beliefs. You're left feeling as though you've been run over, but also with a sense of delight that we still have filmmakers who can both evince such fierce sympathy for their characters and produce work which is so uncompromisingly personal. At the beginning, I mentioned films by David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier and Ingmar Bergman - it says a lot that Lukas Moodysson doesn't look out of place in that company. The only film of the past six months to top this for sheer emotional impact is Cronenberg's Spider. This is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema as a medium of personal expression.