aka Lilja 4-ever : Sweden (Swe-Denmark) 2002 : Lukas MOODYSSON : 109 mins
Lilya 4-Ever is so very bad in so many different ways, it’s almost impossible to know where to start. From the deafening Rammstein-sampling opening to the (for this reviewer) literally jaw-dropping finale, Moodysson hammers us over the head with the stunning crudeness of both his writing and direction. He takes a very serious, pressing current issue – the trade in prostitutes into Europe from the former Soviet Union – and turns it into the most crassly manipulative, grindingly predictable melodrama imaginable.
Moodysson’s debut Show Me Love was a pleasant, very small-scale story of teenage lesbian love. Though somewhat overrated*, this was nothing compared to the bafflingly ecstatic reception accorded to his followup, Together – an sloppily-conceived, clumsily-executed comedy set in a 1970s commune. But at least these two movies had plenty of comedy to tide us over the infuriatingly zoom-happy Moodysson’s various shortcomings (he’s shown precisely zero development in technique over the course of three films and five years.)
But while Together‘s political and sociological aspects took a back seat to moderately enjoyable character interactions, Lilya sees Moodysson tackling altogether more ambitious material – and the results are truly painful to behold. His heroine Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) – a 15-year-old stuck in a grim, unspecified ‘former Soviet Union’ country (Estonia was used for location shots) – is cruelly treated by fate at every stage: her mother (Lyubov Agapova) abandons her for a new life in America; her guardian aunt (Liliya Shinkaryova) cons her out of her apartment; through various mishaps she ends up sniffing glue (in sub-Gummo sequences) and selling herself for cash, which is of course only the start of her woes.
The only bright spot on the horizon is her young friend Volodya (Artiom Bogutyarski), though as soon as we see this forlorn-but-plucky little chap his grim fate is as predictable as everything else in the movie. We don’t have to wait very long, for instance, for his prize possession – a basketball – to be punctured. And when we see Lilya carefully wrapping up an inspirational religious painting it’s only a matter of time before we hear the shattering of glass – and, along with it, hope!!!!!!
In fact, the only real hope that exists in the world of Lilya 4-Ever is death and the promise of an afterlife. This world is so evil, asserts the unthinkingly reactionary Moodysson, that the only way to help the likes of Volodya and Lilya is for them to exit it as soon as possible. To grow old is to become stupid and corrupt – Lilya’s teacher cruelly mocks her by saying “A golden future awaits you” (such piercing irony!), and she’s just about the most sympathetic adult character on view – Volodya is by far the wisest head around, and Lilya ignores his sage advice on a particular crucial issue at her peril.
But even after Volodya’s inevitable, mawkishly Little Nell-style demise, he’s still around to deliver Moodysson’s gloopy moral (“You’re only alive for a brief moment”) and generally help Lilya out, bedecked in a set of little white angel wings. And it’s no film-maker’s fantasy: this angel is real, and proves instrumental in Lilya escaping her captors once she’s been duped into a life of grim prostitution in Sweden, setting up a ‘happy ending’ so mind-blowingly trite it must be seen to be believed. And even then.
Moodysson conveys Lilya’s “work” in just about the most hackneyed way possible: a montage of leering, sweating, grunting faces bearing down during sex, seen from her perspective. At every stage, Moodysson can be guaranteed to plump for the most grindingly predictable option – the furious Lilya first rips up her mother’s photo, then remorsefully glues it back together, only to burn it when she realises how cruelly she’s been abandoned. When he isn’t indulging in shameless clich, he’s letting rip with his ‘trademark’ tiresome zoom-ins – while somehow managing to hold back from this for six whole minutes, he then makes plenty of amends for lost time later on.
If nothing else, the ineptly-paced, interminable Lilya 4-Ever is very well named – and there really is nothing else here. Even inattentive viewers will be able to fill in the whole story very early on, just so long as they expect the very worst from fate and Moodysson himself. The prologue sees a battered Lilya contemplating death by leaping from a motorway bridge – then we jump back three months to see her downward-spiral begin with her mother’s desertion: in slow-motion, Lilya collapses in a muddy puddle outside a Brezhnev-era block of Soviet flats, and as mournfuls string swell on the soundtrack a passing stray dog enters the frame just to rub our noses in the misery that little bit more.
This cartoonish film is a shameful caricature of poverty to rank alongside Britain’s Purely Belter and America’s 8 Mile, making absolutely no contribution to what is a very complex debate. On this evidence Moodysson is an offensively crass embarrassment as a writer, and shockingly inept as a film director – although, as in his previous kiddie-centric movies, he does get strong performances from his young leads (Akinshina was nevertheless much better, and much better served, as the plucky heroine of Sergei Bodrov Jr’s relatively underexposed Sisters).
A glowing future perhaps beckons, then, in youth-theatre – anything so long as he’s kept away from a movie camera. Asked to name his favourite film in a recent newspaper article, Moodysson replied (with typical ego-driven charmlessness): “My next film.” Then he went on to grandly add the caveat “If I ever make a new film – I’m not sure if I will. I am tired of films.” It’s hard to imagine a more heartwarming statement.
15th April, 2003
(seen 11th April, City Screen, York)
* According to Theo Panayides in Winter 2002’s Film Comment magazine, Ingmar Bergman has praised Moodysson as “a genius film narrator” (whatever that means) – a comment which perhaps tells us rather more about Bergman than it does Moodysson.
The Panayides piece is an often-hilarious example of the contortions critics put themselves through to excuse bad movies: “Lilya is indeed crude, so crude it makes you wonder about Moodysson’s motives. Why would anybody want to make a film with such hackneyed moments? . The film might be interpreted as a . personal act of Christian charity: Moodysson’s attempt at totally selfless film-making, privileging the subject in all respects over the filmmaker.”
Panayides also mentions that Moodysson is “a deeply religious man” – in a breathless profile of the director on BBC Radio 4 he was described as “a committed Christian.” If so, he must belong to a very odd branch of the faith – one that regards suicide as a justifiable short-cut to heaven.
(footnote – 20th April 2003)
For other films rated 1 or 2 out of 10 check out our Diorama of Dishonour
by Neil Young