Lilya 4-Ever Review
I’m sure everyone at some point has dreamed of escaping their reality, to go off and find a better place where they might be happier. In Lilya 4-Ever director, Lukas Moodysson takes a look at an impoverished part of the world and asks us if such reality can be overcome for the better. Oh and there’s a whole bit about prostitution also.
“Somewhere in what was once the Soviet Union” lives Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) - a 16-year-old girl who has grown tired of living a life of poverty; where nothing ever happens and where hope hangs by a thread. When her mother (Ljubov Agapova) meets a Russian man who lives in America, she learns that she is to join them and start a new life overseas. When the day finally arrives Lilya is told that she will have to stay behind and join her mother at a later date, but unfortunately for Lilya that day will never come. When her mother abandons her, Lilya finds herself alone in a flat that she can’t afford to pay for. When she’s forced to move to a run down apartment block she meets a young boy by the name of Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij). He is also in a dire predicament; his father is cruel to him and he’s forced out onto the street night after night. The pair finds solace in each other, but it’s not enough. Lilya, desperate for an income starts going out with her best friend Natasha (Elina Benenson) to clubs, where they begin to prostitute themselves and for a while Lilya can live a life of luxury. When a perfect opportunity arises after Lilya meets a young man named Andrei (Pavel Ponomarjov) who works in Sweden she is soon taken to a new life, but little does she know that tragedy waits.
Moodysson’s third feature is one that quite rightfully causes concern for debate. Lilya 4-Ever is a bleak film that looks at the horrors of the world’s nasty sex trade; when the final credits have rolled Moodysson has dedicated it to all of the people who have been exploited throughout the years. Morally the film can be seen as just, though it never tells us anything more than we already know. By taking up a pseudo-documentary style we’re presented with a story that is firmly set in reality; the impression given is that this could be happening right now, in the same place and under the same circumstances. All very well and good but where does it leave us from there? Well, it forces a series of blunt and unrelenting situations, hammering home its message at the expense of Lilya. When tragedy befalls the young girl one must look at what Moodysson is trying to accomplish. On one hand we have a girl whose life is so doomed, due to her forced predicament and on the other hand she’s a girl who isn’t incredibly likeable in the first place. Of course it becomes apparent later on that Lilya wises up to just how much of a rebellious, rude young teen she was, but by that point we’ve passed reason to care. She’s a disrespectful girl, turning her nose up at others who are either in a more fortunate state than her or are equally as poor, save for the young boy who acts as an angel on her shoulder - something which later goes from being metaphorical to entirely physical. But Moodysson doesn’t seem to be able to grasp Lilya’s situation in a way that allows us to draw large quantities of sympathy for her, and the main concerning issue that is supposed to be a relevant commentary becomes lost during a series of repetitive situations.
Once Lilya is left to her own devices she becomes embroiled in one of the film’s driving forces. Indeed the way in which many young women and even men are exploited is horrific, and clearly horrific is something that Moodysson wishes to address. There’s nothing glamorous here; it’s a cruel world with seedy cruel men who run girls without shame, but no amount of ramming this imagery in our face will make Lilya 4-Ever any more an important piece of work. That’s the trouble with Moodysson’s quest; at times he wants to force feed us with a barrage of unsettling imagery, though even saying that it fails on a greater level. We shouldn’t have to see actions in any detail but neither should we have to see a repetitive flurry of shots to drive home anything supposedly poignant. Lilya’s suffering is captured to a degree but it’s also carried out in a way that leaves the viewer tired. Had Moodysson decided to cut some slack then Lilya might have been a stronger piece of work during several build ups. As it is the film is just left to wallow in itself as it fires off on all cylinders, not knowing when to quit. It can be argued whether or not the film goes far enough in showcasing such a harsh reality, but it comes somewhere in between being exploitive and overly dramatised. No doubt part of this is the point, but it’s manipulative without being engaging. Lilya 4-Ever could have been a documentary, but never was; these matters would be far better addressed had we been taken behind the scenes. At the end of the day what do we really learn about this kind of prostitution? Moodysson never goes beyond a certain point to highlight just how bad it really is out there, and we never really see how prostitute life works or how so many of these girls are so easily duped (except for just one poor girl wanting to leave her poor town) - do all of them just meet seemingly nice guys, who then whisk them off to a worse life? Doubtful. There’s a struggling element about a film trying so hard to disgust and challenge us, while not being able to deliver anything on a higher social scale. In that respect Lilya 4-Ever is largely a patronising piece of work that thinks it is telling us a lot more than it actually is.
Furthermore Moodysson relies on a score that goes against the grain of this social and economical commentary, which takes away even more of a desired effect. It fails to generate the kind of sympathy or empathy that the director so demands. Opening with the sounds of Rammstein, which is no doubt designed to emphasise just how desperate Lilya’s situation is, we have a harder edge which soon becomes a device that grows tedious. Likewise when Lilya and her friends are off getting high on glue the soundtrack becomes awash in awful techno sounds, hammering home a couple more messages through the likes T.A.T.U.’s lyrics and more.
There will be some spoilers ahead.
As a character piece the film is somewhat flawed. Lilya is never allowed to grow, save for the end. Meanwhile she relies on false hope that gleams through her old painting of angels, channelling her religious beliefs so that one day she might be saved, thus giving her spiritual peace. It seems that only in death though can Lilya ever be at peace. Perhaps more frustratingly is the lack of forging an understanding about her situation. There are several moments that present options for Lilya throughout. All the time we’re meant to believe that there is no escape for her, but there is. Either she wants to die, in which case she’d have killed herself a long time ago or she wants to be free. If we go with the latter then why doesn’t she approach the police officers at the gas station, after escaping her captor? For a start she’s in Sweden, big deal, it shouldn’t be a problem. Do the authorities not feel pity for a girl forced into slavery? And why would Lilya be so afraid to approach them, because if she did she might be placed into foster care? In the shopping mall, could she not scream for help in front of a hundred people? We can only speculate over these moments and its those exact problems that further distances us from her character. If we move over to Volodya we have a character that seems so much more realised. Where Lilya has little to go off, Volodya generates plenty of understanding. He’s a young bright lad, in fact he sees through every manipulating action brought on through the men that Lilya meets. He simply warns her every time that “he just wants to sleep with you”, to which she blindly ignores him. Volodya has the hard task of being a young and impressionable boy. He wants to go and hang out with the annoying Russian equivalent of chavs and sniff glue ‘til the sun comes up, but he also wants to help Lilya. As her only zone of comfort Lilya fails to realise until it’s too late just how much the boy meant to her. As sad as Volodya’s situation is, again it’s the fault of Moodysson for not delivering a well rounded critique. Moreover due to Lilya 4-Ever’s religious connotations the director goes that little extra mile to create a greater distancing. It is all very well to show religious characters and have them truly believe in something but to carry out any religious themes by using evidently clichéd dialogue that has been echoed countless times in the past just makes the whole delivery seem less polished; originality isn't the key here by any stretch, and by placing these themes next to storylines that involve prostitution and drug abuse we simply have a mess of ideas that aren't nearly as effective as they should be.
The film then becomes a fantastical melodrama, whereby in the end these poor souls have sprouted wings and proceed to play basketball on the roof of a block of flats. Lilya finds her peace, after a long slog but the time spent in-between was far from enlightening. Life isn’t all angels and insects, redemption isn’t found from suicide so just what is Moodysson’s overall message? These issues have been addressed umpteen times in the past. Was all he really wanted to say is “Look at this girl getting trodden on a hundred times”? As an endeavour to bring us something of high relevance the film degenerates into soppy surrealism and bloated sentimentalism. It was already riding a predictable wave, not helped by its opening sequence, and by the time its final act was up its wild card had been wasted.
Kudos however to the young cast who dominate the film. Oksana Akinshina is compelling in her role as the tortured girl, Lilya. She shows a considerable range of talent that requires her to go from being hurt and lost, to seductive and doubting. There’s no doubt she has a great face for film and Moodysson captures her perfectly; in fact most of the film is wonderfully shot. Likewise, Artiom Bogucharskji puts in a commendable performance that deserves as much, if not further praise. He has a lot of responsibility placed on his shoulders here and he impressively handles the material.
Although Lilya 4-Ever has been available on DVD since 2003, this year saw the release of the Lukas Moodysson Film Collection. Here you can find Together, Show Me Love, A Hole in My Heart and the film reviewed here.
Metrodome have done a grand job in presenting Lilya 4-Ever. We have a nice 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on display which is free from any major defects. The film’s naturally grainy look is preserved to a certain degree, meaning that a tiny amount of Edge Enhancement has been used to sharpen the image. It’s not distracting but neither is it something that needed to be applied for a film that is meant to carry this particular look. There are no visible compression artefacts and colours are presented perfectly, helping to aid the film’s overall grim aesthetic. Black levels are strong and contrast is nicely handled.
On the audio side of things we have Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 tracks. Lilya 4-Ever was originally mixed with DTS in mind, having used that for its theatrical run. It’s a shame then that we don’t see it here, but that isn’t too much of a problem as the 5.1 track is very impressive. The track is more reliant on its musical cues than anything else, so several of the songs and tunes that play throughout are given quite a bit of life, although little to none rear action. On the dialogue front things are forwarded to the centre speakers and sound clear, with no noticeable flaws. This is a film that probably didn’t need to rely on any juicy delivery but it turns out to be one that is all the more effective thanks to this set up.
Extras - The following have no subtitles.
The Guardian Interview with Lukas Moodysson
There’s no actual time seek on this interview but it approximately lasts for a whopping 90-minutes. After a brief introduction, Moodysson is taken on stage and asked a series of questions - obviously. He begins by talking a little about his poetry writing days as a 17-year-old and then about his desire to make films, which simply stemmed from boredom. Following up he answers questions about his specific intents when making films. Show Me Love, Together and Lilya 4-Ever all get a fair amount of coverage here, and there’s more than enough interest for the biggest fans. Moodysson’s English is pretty good but he does struggle from time to time, and as a result there are many moments when he has a hard time getting out the right words. Also due to this he can be difficult to make out and it doesn’t help when the audio quality is low; but this is something that is mentioned at the beginning of the piece.
Lukas Moodysson Trailer Reel
Here you’ll find trailers for Lilya 4-Ever and Together. The first is a very good taster for the film but has a couple of spoilers, while the latter offers some fun little moments.
UNICEF film “More Precious than Gold”, narrated by Robbie Williams
Here’s where the extras get a bit pointless. It’s not that these aren’t important, they just shouldn’t be stuck on the end of this DVD. Robbie Williams tells us all about starving children in Africa, the same thing we’re being shown every year during “Comic Relief”.
Amnesty International Appeal Promotional Video
Finally we have this video that takes a look at the problems faced in Chechnya. There are pretty unsettling images amongst the narration and again, although it is looking at a serious issue it bares no relevance to this film.
Lilya 4-Ever can be commended for its visual style and great performances. As a piece of storytelling it holds a certain amount of relevance. Yes the world is cruel, yes these things are really going on right now and yes we should be made aware of such horrors. But the film strays too much; it’s uneven, overly forceful and ludicrously sloppy in places, failing to really bring us much of worth in the end.