This dark, sobering film, the latest by acclaimed Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, is all at once a profoundly moving story, a protest against misogyny, a damning indictment of the new world order and a longing for something better. It is, in short, a tale for our times. Set in the bleak housing schemes of the former USSR, it charts the descent of an abandoned Russian teenager into prostitution, rape and finally suicide.
‘Lilya 4-Ever’ marks a departure from Moodysson’s first two movies – ‘Show Me Love’ and ‘Together’. The satirical – whimsical even – humour of his previous
work has been replaced with an unblinking vision of human desperation and suffering.
It could have been completely different. Moodysson was inundated with offers from Hollywood after the international success of his last movie, Together. He courageously turned them all down in order to maintain his independence. Or as he put it recently, ‘They don’t care about art over there, just money.’
Lilya, played magnificently by Oksana Akinshina, lives in a crumbling Russian city (it remains unnamed because, I suppose, it could be any Russian city). Its decaying housing blocks stand as a testament to the failure of both Stalinism and the free market. The promise of prosperity and peace that heralded the end of the Cold War is a distant memory.
Lilya’s life takes a turn for the worse when her mother deserts her for the chance of a better life in America. All alone she befriends a homeless boy, Volodya. It is perhaps the film’s only moment of compassion. They sleep side by side. They sniff glue and race around an old Soviet base where their parents used to work. Eventually, however, poverty and hunger drive Lilya into the arms of wealthy men in the local clubs. As other critics have commented, this would be ample material for most other film-makers. Moodysson, however, adds a second act of terrible, almost unimaginable cruelty.
Lilya meets an attractive stranger called Andrei, who promises her a job in Sweden. Out of desperation she travels, on a false passport, across the Baltic. When she arrives she is imprisoned in a flat and forced into prostitution.
In a compelling but deeply distressing piece of cinema Moodysson shows us everything from Lilya’s perspective. We see the men’s faces as they loom over her, their faces contorted and perspiring. It is all the more powerful – and frankly difficult to watch – because it isn’t particularly graphic. It is simply enough to witness her subjugation and the men’s lustful hatred.
The film is undeniably pessimistic. But so much so that it brings to mind Trotsky’s remark, when discussing the modernist writer Céline, that occasionally the very intensity of pessimism bears with it a dose of its alternative. Indeed Moodysson recently insisted in an interview that ‘it’s okay to view “Lilya” as a pessimistic film, as long as you face that pessimism and try to do something about it’.
To its credit the film appears to be linked to a campaign launched by Amnesty International to promote the rights of Russian women, and the Unicef project to end child exploitation.
‘Lilya 4-Ever”s political punches are delivered deftly but devastatingly. The symbols of the new world order crop up throughout the film. The yellow arches of McDonald’s haunt Lilya’s every move – from Russia to Sweden. The well-heeled stranger, Andrei, buys her a Happy Meal on their first date. Her captor in Sweden ‘treats’ her to a Big Mac after she has been raped. Volodya, her one friend, wants to be Michael Jordan. This juxtaposition between western products and human desperation underlines the inequalities of the new world order.
At the beginning of the movie Lilya announces that she shares her birthday with Britney Spears. It’s hard not to speculate that had she been born a rich white American her fate would have been quite different.
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