It’s rare for a film to leave me in a state of anger and frustration, but it’s much rarer for a film to leave me questioning exactly why it caused such a reaction. Lilya 4-Ever, Lukas Moodysson’s third directorial feature, did just that. By the end of the film, I was close to getting physically animated, searching for something to throw at the screen. Making it worse is the fact that I adored Moodysson’s two prior films; Fucking Åmål was as poignant a portrayal of teenage angst, emotion, sensitivity and sexuality as I’ve ever seen on film, ending with one of the great triumphs in cinema history (all the more miraculous because it avoids any kind of manipulative, saccharine sentimentalism). Together it was one of the finest ensemble pieces I’ve seen in years, honestly capturing the variety of personalities inhabiting a Swedish hippie commune in the 1970s. But Lilya utterly lacks the hopeful bent of the previous two films while tackling a weighty, depressing subject that seemed to drag Moodysson’s artistic humanism down with it.
Lilya stars Oksana Akinshina in the title role of a 16-year old girl who, in the opening ten minutes of the film, is abandoned by her mother and left to live alone in a run-down Estonian apartment building. Lilya befriends Volodya (Artyom Buguharsky), a boy two years younger than her who is the victim of an abusive father and frequently finds himself playing basketball without the use of an actual basketball, and the two begin living together in her cramped home. At first, Lilya relishes her freedom, throwing parties for her friends and indulging in drugs (mostly sniffing glue). But it’s not long before her aunt forces her to move into a smaller place that’s even more run down. When Lilya’s mother fails to write and send money, Lilya begins contemplating working as a prostitute like her friend, Natasha (Elina Benenson). When Lilya meets Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov), she believes her prayers have been answered as Andrei offers to take her to Sweden and find her good-paying work. Unfortunately, Lilya falls into the clutches of a Witek (Tomasz Neuman) who is running a prostitute trafficking business from which Lilya can’t escape.
As can be easily discerned from the plot synopsis, this isn’t light subject matter. Making it a bit easier (or ultimately worse, depending on your perspective) is that Moodysson’s talent for instantly humanizing his characters is apparent from the get-go. Like the two girls in Åmål or the entire cast in Together, Lilya feels like an utterly genuine, 3-dimensional human being throughout. Many directors can feign naturalism with faux-documentary style film-making and faux-improvised acting, but often it just serves to highlight the artifice behind the production (cough*Judd Apatow*cough). Moodysson, even though he also uses the hand-held camera and improvisational techniques himself, realizes that the real truth doesn’t come from any quasi-realism, but from the core of the characters as portrayed by the actors. On that front, the young Oksana Akinshina turns in a phenomenal performance in a difficult role. She doesn’t go for easy sympathy, at times playing Lilya as the bratty, self-centered adolescent she is (and most of that age are). Likewise, she rarely sinks into melodrama even in the film’s most brutal moments. Much of the credit for that is due to Moodysson, who frequently holds back his camera from going into teary-eyed close-ups.
But this profound realism also serves as the film’s Achilles’ Heel (and the source of my frustrated anger) as the film wears on and the religious/spiritual elements creep in. While I’m an atheist myself, I have no problem with the portrayal of religion, spiritualism or metaphysics in film. No, the problem is much deeper than that. Early on, Volodya talks with Lilya about what they think happens when you die. Volodya believes in God and Jesus and that when you die you become an angel in heaven and can do anything you want, like fulfilling your fantasy of playing basketball all day and being ten-times better than Michael Jordon. If Moodysson would have left it at this conversational level, there wouldn’t have been a problem. (Note, the next sentence and next paragraph contain spoilers): When Volodya dies of a suicidal overdose and begins visiting Lilya as an angel, the film takes a turn for the absurd and offensive. The offense doesn’t come from the fact that he’s an angel, but from the fact that this seems to confirm that suicide is a valid way to escape the harshness of reality and enter paradise.
Even if we put aside any disagreements over such a topic (since Christians would decry the idea that you can reach heaven by suicide as much as myself and others would decry the idea of an afterlife at all), the fact remains that this completely contradicts the lesson that angel-Volodya tries to teach Lilya during a dream sequence. Volodya tells Lilya that he died too soon, and regrets not living more on Earth, even though it was painful to him. “After death you have eternity, but you only have one life” he moralizes. Lilya seems to buy this. When she is awoken by Witek she begins defying him, going so far as to attempt escape even though she’s severely beaten. When she escapes again, her real freedom comes when she jumps from a bridge, committing suicide herself (even as Volodya is pleading for her not to do so). The film ends with the two of them as angels, playing basketball together.
In a lengthy interview that comes as a bonus on the UK DVD, Moodysson addresses this issue near the end. Although I couldn’t hear the question from the audience member, Moodysson essentially says that “sometimes, there is no hope,” where the idea seems to be that in his attempt to present reality, he couldn’t simply offer a miraculous salvation for a character in a situation where, most frequently, there is none. As I sat back thinking about this, I began to analyze my own sense of anger over the film’s seeming contradictions between living life versus committing suicide to escape from life into paradise. I came to realize that, as a viewer sitting comfortably in his home, watching this rather dour film on a 73” Mitsubishi DLP and an Oppo Blu-ray player, I simply couldn’t connect to and identify with the situation. What’s worse than the lack of identification was the realization that, even though I’ve gone through personal hells of my own, I have never been in a situation without hope.
This thought made me question just how bad life must get to where one could lose something that seems most valuable. As one commentator said on Children of Men, hope can only exist when life is at its shittiest, otherwise you don’t need it. Yet, the loss of hope and desire to escape life through death is incredibly cheapened when we know what comes after death. One of the central dilemmas in great art is why we suffer through life when we know death is an escape. Of course, Shakespeare immortalized the reason in Act III of his Hamlet:
“…who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death…
makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
The central idea being that our own “not knowing” of what happens after death keeps us from rushing headlong into it. Remove this key concept and you remove the entire reason why so many keep living, no matter their belief. It’s this central concept that the film betrays. For all its realism, its escape into the supernatural finds Moodysson looking for a hope-beyond-hope that cancels out the very purpose of the film (to present a life without the hope of a good life).
On the other hand, another comment by Moodysson in the interview struck me when he states that (paraphrasing): “The highest praise I’ve gotten from the film has been from women, while the most hatred has all been from men. In Sweden there were four professional critical reviews where the two men gave it a 2-out-of-6 rating, while the two women gave it a 5 and 6 out of 6.” That gulf between male and female reviews might be as crucial an element in my reaction as any other. What’s more, the pervasive problem of prostitution and trafficking is a worldwide disease that Moodysson believes is caused by economic inequality (hence, the setting of Estonia as part of the former Soviet Union makes a potent representative given the fallout of the communist economic state). Moodysson expresses just how much of a responsibility he feels he has (and all of us should feel we have) over the problems of the world. Equally, he feels that filmmaking is the only way he can address such issues.
There’s no denying that the horror of rape is something that very few adult men experience. Moodysson frequently films the rapes in first-person-perspective with the camera acting as Lilya’s point-of-view. It sounds like a good idea on paper, but in the film I found it served to separate me from Lilya’s own experiencing of them (again, perhaps this is simply from the male perspective). The two instances filmed with a close-up on Lilya’s face were more powerful to me. There’s also the key problem of how you render such things in cinematic time. In the real world, I can imagine how every second would seem like an hour during a rape. While you can replicate a similar subjective time in the film, you have to have your audience cued into the characters so strongly that such moments DO pass like hours. I think this is an almost impossible task; for many, I imagine it would be easier to simply disconnect at such moments. I found myself doing just that, and sometimes failing to recover the connection that Moodysson so deftly forges between Lilya and the audience during the get-go.
Honestly, Lilya 4-Ever is a film I’m torn about. On the one hand, I admire its tackling of a monumental subject through the lens of what is yet another great Moodysson character (with a performance to match). On the other hand, I detest it escaping into a realm of the supernatural to find hope where none is. Great directors like Kieslowski, Satyajit Ray, von Trier and even Kubrick could suggest the supernatural without merging the realm of the unknown into the realm of the known. Moodysson, unfortunately, takes this too far. Yes, perhaps one can argue that what we see are only manifestations of Lilya’s imaginations (or even dreams), but the epilogue seems to suggest otherwise. I also can’t ignore my own male bias when critiquing the film. So, as much as I’d like to condemn it, I simply can’t. It would be too easy, and, in an odd way, I appreciate its ability to frustrate and anger me so. I’d also be a hypocrite for doing something I so often accuse others of doing, namely, reacting negatively to a film and thinking that your reaction is solely the film’s fault, while the truth is that you might be just as much to blame (and this is a case where I can pronounce myself guilty on at least a few levels).