“Lilja 4-Ever” – Andrew Guarini

 

With a piece of shattered glass while spit and insults fall like rain from a second story balcony, Lilja sits defiantly and carves something into the seat of a wooden bench. Their ranting is on deaf ears as the camera patiently waits, like Lilja, for the final product which reads: “Lilja 4-Ever”. Swedish writer/director Lukas Moodysson’s film isn’t about exploitation of grim misfortune and the incredibly sadistic gauntlet that we might call life, but about these small moments in time where personal happiness is focal albeit fleeting. The story is of 16 year old Lilja (Oksana Akinshina), whose mother (Lyubov Agapova) and her Soviet boyfriend promise that they will all move to America, or in its simplest terms, a better place away from “the former republic of the Soviet Union”. But when “mommy dearest” flees to America without Lilja and denounces her parental responsibility to the young girl, Lilja is forced to cope with her own disintegrating life. A slightly stubborn rebel, Lilja ignores school and is forced from her spacious apartment by her new commandant Aunt Anna (Liliya Shinkaryova) and into a cramped, dilapidated apartment that’s more like a over ground cubby. The deceased former tenant’s accessories and items still clutter the cramped space.

 

When her closest friend burns bridges with Lilja as well her only companionship comes from Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky) a boy we assume to be from 10-13 years old. Their relationship is as heartfelt as it is spontaneously atypical, but they understand a common theme: this world is a tough place, and their gentle conversation means an escape from the darkness. Volodya shoots a tin can in a basketball hoop outside and dreams heaven is a place where he can shoot basketballs all day and be as good as Michael Jordan. Their exterior shells might be hardened and callous, but their combined joy of misery and delusions of greener pastures, cannot combat the unpredictable nature of being.

 

Even when Lilja rejoices in the company of a handsome young fellow named Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov), the petit Volodya retains a certain alarming cynicism: “he just wants to sleep with you.” All throughout the small things make for difference makers too, such as the strategic use of jump cutting. From the beginning sequence where a battered Lilja runs through the streets we sense the long journey ahead as the cuts hit at a rapid pace. The grim message seems to already set in: fight and you won’t survive, run and you won’t escape. Still Lilja retains a certain optimism about her mother who had recently departed to America; after tearing her picture to pieces and dumping it into an ashtray she quickly reassembles them, an indication of her free flowing nature, hating one second, loving the next. Later however when she learns of her moms true feelings for her and the even deeper betrayal, she burns the picture to ash. Her mother is wholly non-existent.

 

The direction by Mr. Moodysson, who was a published poet before filmmaker, is an integral part of the film’s bare bones, naked, almost documentary-like rawness. In a turn we are able to painfully project, Lilja must resort to prostitution to feed herself and improve living conditions: her electricity was recently cut. It would be disgustingly easy for a director to use this plotline for shock and awe with graphic depictions of the teenagers, we presume, first sexual encounter. But instead we’re shown the act the way Lilja sees it: a bland necessity. The camera lingers close-up on her emotionless face, a panting middle aged man providing the sound off screen. The bed rocks as her face rests on a pillow, looking to the wall as if help were on the way. The man kisses her cheek several times and we sense her disgust: there is no passion in this loveless act of lust. She leaves the night club/hotel running in a fervor of momentary regret. She stops behind a pole and vomits, quickly slouching to a fetal position. The camera rapidly zooms out, a bright light above the shading of her depressed state…from far away we sense the life sucked out of her. We then cut to her shopping for groceries with an almost smile on her face. She couldn’t afford them before but with this act she sensed as despicable, she is able to continue living the best way she possibly can.

 

The handheld cinematography is a perfectly adapted complement to the environment of the film: a drab industrial wasteland of dull grays and abandoned factories. There seems to be subtle criticisms of capitalism, or more aptly the fall of the Soviet Union. When Lilja and Volodya make their way through a temporary home where the young boy spends nights when his raging father kicks him out, they remark that their parents were both employed before the fall of their formerly illustrious homeland. Lilja remarks that her soldier father left the family and Volodya reads a tribute to Lenin and the October Revolution in a voiceover while the two look at a red draped mural on the wall. We sense that they are not products of their own wrongdoing but products of their society, one where people can barely function as individuals, let alone wholes. Even when Lilja walks up the stairs to her apartment, the lighting completely hides her face for she has no identity in this anamorphous blob of a country with its muddled ambitions and bleak futures.

 

But somehow even when Lilja and Volodya tenderly exchange by candlelight in her increasingly dingy “home,” Moodysson shows the glimmers of light in the depravity of the every day. Freely we pan between the two whose conversations are golden bits of stream of consciousness, freely baring their souls and improv philosophy. I can duly credit the direction and writing by Moodysson for the evocation of such deep chemistry and connected lost souls, but the demanding performances by such young people in roles that are far from simplistic and one note are equally deserving. This feat is all the more perplexing when you consider that Akinshina speaks neither English nor Swedish and Moodysson and she were only able to speak through an interpreter. Considering things like this and the rigid, rough terrains of the material, the gut wrenching performance by Akinshina is all the more dazzling and haunting. Her ascensions and declinations, from sporadic ecstasy to gloomy sorrow and reflections on a personal hell are further indication of the immense duality she handles in the role.

 

Her character is teeming with vulnerability but also cold demeanor, determined not to let the atrocities and tragedy fault her in the bigger picture. She knows deep down she’s better than all this. The fact that we know this is because she has conveyed it to us through the screen and because the performance puts us into her body, one that’s screaming to be set free. It’s not just spoken word but deadpan facial expression for the affecting character arc. When the first john greets her in the night club her reluctant smile and nod are reflections of her hard times, she’s forced into degradation purely by circumstances. With Andrei her gentle smiles reveal her confident and cheerful nature that’s only unearthed when miracles arise from the filth she resides in. When Andrei promises a move to Sweden with a job and living space, Lilja’s call to a friend who brutally betrayed and set her downfall in motion is a source of semi-comedic relief and fulfilling payback…even if it’s just a simple phone call. She remarks to her, giddy: “I’m moving with my boyfriend to Sweden. You’ll be left in this shithole. That’s how it goes, sweetie.” She says her last piece and hangs up, the victor. When the visceral shift into the film’s final quarter comes, Akinshina is more than able to handle the territory. Closely guarded should be the film’s progression but her befuddlement at the present condition for she believed it could never get worse must be complimented. There’s a distant fear in her gentle eyes. Underneath all these horrific turns of events she remains hopeful.

 

The captivation between Akinshina as Lilja and Agapova as Volodya is one of the many reasons the film hits as hard and seeps as deep into the bones as it does. As Volodya Agapova shows a boy who’s wise beyond his years. At first he might seem a bit foolish, attempting to kiss Lilja but being told he’s too young and eventually faking a pill overdose to get that little peck on the lips. Just by smile and giggle we know his whole world has been prosperously turned upside down and shaken, if only for a moment. Their connection is only strained for a short bit, as quickly as we can blink their need for each other is rekindled. It’s nice to see a film where dependence between a man and a woman isn’t about the promise of sex, but about the circumvention from unhappiness. They even sniff glue together and in a joyful moment on the rooftops of Volodya’s eviscerated runaway complex, they run and jump under the sun in a happy embrace. With moments this touching you’re liable to forget about the slightly misplaced techno music that has a habit of appearing throughout.

 

On the flipside when Lilja is viciously attacked by a set of her tormentors, we feel Volodya’s terror and helplessness to defend her. He’s so transfixed by their ability to be together and forget the ugliness that when they’re brought back to reality, his young mind is even more devastated. He’d do anything to defend her but he cannot, the world is simply too much for either of them to handle at its sudden moments of inhumanity. The end and means of Lilja 4-Ever are uncompromisingly dreary and desolate and might turn many off with its constant reminders of the darkness that encompasses our existence. It’s at times infinitely joyous and at times unbearably cruel. By the end I was spent but amazed at the experience that had painfully flown by. It’s subdued in its telling of these adversities leaving our imaginations to work on their own at how dank the situation really is. Volodya remarks at one point in his pre-teenage but bright sayings: “You remain dead for all eternity but you’re alive for only a brief moment.” What Lilja 4-Ever attempts to convey, and it does so successfully, is the debate over the worth of these two extremes. It’s memorable for all the wrong and right reasons, but mostly because we really care for these characters and their fortunes. When I think of the events that befall these two innocent souls just trying to get by, my heart breaks. Chances are, yours will too, if you give this tough masterpiece a chance.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

-Andrew Guarini

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