Swede Lucas Moodysson shares with fellow Scandinavian director Lars Von Trier sympathy for the travails of young women, a strong sense of melodrama, and an apparently unshaken belief in the lord God. Like Von Trier, he has a knack for getting extraordinary work from his actors – if Emily Watson turned out to be Von Trier’s Falconetti in her one great performance to date, the cherubic Oksana Akinshina, as 16-year-old Lilja, is Moodysson’s Anna Karina. But the film itself is cruel. It insists on Lilja’s fundamental innocence, then puts her in an impossible situation in order to break her will. And then Moodysson, in the crass guise of a deceitful lover, moves in for the kill.
Akinshina does give a mostly wonderful naturalistic performance as Lilja, a teenager marooned somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Full of barely suppressed anger, bubbling with energy, and protective of her sexuality, she begins the film telling everyone within earshot that she’s leaving for America with her mother, who has hooked up with a Russian expatriate she met through the mail. But as it happens, her mother abandons her instead. Devastated, Lilja befriends Volodya, a younger boy of slight build who’s just about the only character in the film who doesn’t seek to take advantage of her – maybe because she shuts down his sexual advances on the grounds of their age differential. The film chronicles her descent into prostitution, making clear the deliberate exploitations that take place in the process.
The result is one of the saddest films I know, with its burgeoning emotional power coming from the close company the camera keeps with Akinshina herself, who seems unable to comprehend the vast promises and threats of the world outside her squalid flat. She’s pretty and principled and full of kindness in a way that encourages easy audience identification with her plight. Her misery thus cultivated, it blossoms in a sequence of startling first-person shots from Lilja’s point of view as each in a series of unpleasant, self-obsessed men has brutish sex with her. The film ends as it began, with a pounding angst anthem by Rammstein seeming all too relevant as Lilja balances the value of her life against the misery she must endure.
If it weren’t for well-observed moments of warmth and companionship between Lilja and Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky, very good in a role that requires similarly complete guilelessness) this would all be too bleak too bear. As it stands, Lilya 4-Ever is an arthouse tearjerker, heart-wrenching because it’s hard to deny that Moodysson has managed to capture the destruction of something precious simply by applying the logic of the international sex trade to the poverty of a free-spirited Russian girl with modest dreams but few prospects. Manipulative and reductive though it may be, it’s a film that clearly takes place in the real world.
The deliberate hopelessness on display can be justified as far as the film is politicized; it means to call attention to a specific social issue afflicting eastern Europe. Compare this to Breaking the Waves, which, in the final analysis, is all about God; the social content extends mainly to its working-class milieu and its last-laugh judgment on the villagers who stand around clucking over Bess’ behavior. But Breaking the Waves is, at heart, an optimistic film that believes in the divinity of ordinary people. Lilya 4-Ever mourns for their mortality – though it unconvincingly remakes Volodya as an angel – and argues for happiness in life everlasting. Me, I’m a non-believer who loves Breaking the Waves and admires Lilya 4-Ever. If Moodysson didn’t believe in God, I’m doubt he’d have the stomach to make a film so discouraging, let alone expect people to endure it. His big emotional climax, which extols the virtues of selflessness and depicts a literal heaven where kids laugh and play rooftop basketball all day, will deflate anyone who believes that the relationships we forge here on planet earth are as close to eternity as human beings will get — even as the tears begin to flow. B