Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lilja 4-Ever

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: impulse buys / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 56 of 100

Why buy?

Part of the Lukas Moodysson box set.

The expectation

A downbeat, emotionally draining drama.

The actuality

Did I say “downbeat”? In the first half hour or so of ‘Lilja 4-Ever’, the eponymous 16 year old heroine (Oksana Akinshina) has her hopes of a new life in America dashed when her mother accompanies her new suitor abroad, leaving Lilja behind in Russia with the vague promise of joining them later. Lilja’s bad-tempered Aunt Anna (Liliya Shinkaryova) cons her out of her mother’s apartment, coercing her into a move to a dingy towerblock flat with peeling wallpaper, threadbare carpets and defective plumbing. It’s enough to make your average Ken Loach film look like a feelgood rom-com. And things only get worse for our girl.

Did I say “emotionally draining”? Lilja is left without money, the electricity cut off, and summoned before social services who are in receipt of a letter from her mother renouncing her care of Lilja and turning her over to the state. Determining to become self-sufficient, Lilja reluctantly lets her so-called best friend Natasha (Elina Benenson) persuade her into turning tricks for older men they meet at a nightclub. When Natasha’s parents find her stash of earnings from these liaisons, she claims the money is Lilja’s, denounces her as a slut and gives her a reputation in the neighbourhood which culminates in a gang rape at the hands of a gang of local youths.

Depressed yet? Hang onto your Prozac, because we’re less than an hour in and the worst is still to come.

BUT. Whereas a Ken Loach or a Lars von Trier would have gone all out with the miserablism and human suffering, Moodysson never loses sight of Lilja’s effervescence, her sparky and rebellious attitude, never mind the travails she goes through. He charts her friendship with fellow outcast Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), a young boy whose father is a truculent bully, sensitively but enthusiastically. The few moments of lightheartedness they share together are joyous and touching. Oksana Akinshina delivers an utterly open, heart-on-her-sleeve performance as Lilja.

So far, Lilja’s mother, aunt and best friend have formed the triumvirate responsible for Lilja’s woes. Compared to Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov), who wanders onto the scene about half way through the film, they’re her fucking benefactors.

Andrei is the too-good-to-be-true boyfriend: good job in Sweden, own flat, flowery promises of a better future. Volodya sees through him immediately. His concerns fall on deaf ears. Lilja sees in Andrei a way out. A new start. Andrei acquires a passport for her in a false name. At the last minute, driving her to the airport, he manufactures a story that he’s been detained and he’ll follow her later (an ironic reversal of her mother’s lie earlier). When her flight lands, she finds herself not in the promised land but the clutches of ill-tempered pimp Witek (Tomasz Neuman). He imprisons her in a dingy flat in a towerblock in a shabby and graffiti-ridden district, all of which are virtually indistinguishable from her home in Russia.

And thus Moodysson wrenches the audience through the last half hour – 30 minutes of cinema as despairing, emotionally devastating and unflinchingly directed as, say, the final stretches of ‘Requiem for a Dream’.

BUT. Even the bleakest moments – a montage of men who use and abuse Lilja (variously: old, ugly, seedy, perverted, misogynistic); a failed escape attempt that results in a beating; Lilja running helplessly and without through the anonymous streets of a foreign and unfriendly city while Rammstein’s bludgeoningly unsubtle ‘Mein Herz Brendt’ (“my heart burns”) roars abrasively on the soundtrack – are offset by a remarkable, and hitherto unheralded in Moodysson’s filmography, leap into the metaphysical.

I’ve littered this review with minor to moderate spoilers already, so I’m saying nothing more about this element of ‘Lilja 4-Ever’. I’ll just post this still …

… and note that the bird is a metaphor and leave it there.

‘Lilja 4-Ever’ is a hard film to watch. In a cinematic climate where audience desensitivity is arguably at its height thanks to half a decade of torture porn, ‘Lilja 4-Ever’ proves that the art form still has the power to disturb, to upset, to provoke. Not that it achieves this by hammering the audience with extreme imagery or testing their limits the way anything from ‘Hostel’ (at the mainstream end) to, say, ‘A Serbian Film’ (at the extreme end), but by engaging the audience with the life, the hopes and the occasional joys of a flawed but extremely human protagonist and then giving the audience nowhere to hide, no narrative or aesthetic comfort zone, when said protagonist, through no fault of her own, is forced into a life that no-one should have to endure.

‘Lilja 4-Ever’, in its own gut-wrenching way, is an incredibly passionate film. Oksana Akinshina is an incredibly fearless actress. Lukas Moodysson proves himself, three films in a row, as one hell of a director.


Simon said...

Oh, god, I failed my midterms after seeing this movie, it was so depressing.

Neil Fulwood said...

I know what you mean. It didn't completely demolish me the way 'Requiem for a Dream' or 'Breaking the Waves' did, but it was still one hell of a downer, notwithstanding the sort-of redemptive/at-peace ending.