I don’t know what happened to Lukas Moodysson between 2000 and 2002, but at some point the talented Swedish director decided that life wasn’t quite as uplifting as his first two films – Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love) and Together suggest. Lilya 4-Ever is a harrowing look at the shocking situation than many young women find themselves in across Europe; it offers no answers but confronts a few hard truths.
Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is a 16-year-old girl growing up in the economically deprived former Soviet Union. Her mother has met a Russian man living in the States, but Lilya’s dreams of moving to the US come crashing down when her mother leaves the country without her, leaving Lilya in the care of an uncaring aunt. With few friends and even less money, Lilya is forced to sell her body to local men in a bar – but can a chance meeting with handsome Andrei be way out of this situation?
Of course not, and what it leads to is even worse. Andrei claims to live and work in Sweden and convinces Lilya to travel there, with the promises of a job, a huge flat and all the privileges that Western Europe has to offer. What actually awaits is sex slavery – Lilya is held captive by a thuggish pimp and driven daily to sordid encounters with men with threats of violence if she tries to run.
The subject matter may be darker, but Moodysson shows the same compassion and empathy for his characters as in his earlier films; the director sympathises with everyone’s situation, not just Lilya’s. While abandoning her daughter to fend for herself hardly demonstrates great parenting skills, Lilya’s mother knows that this might be her only chance to escape the depravation of her surroundings, and the situation is mirrored later in the film when Lilya herself abandons her only friend – an abused boy called Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky) – for a seemingly brighter future in Sweden. Similarly, Lilya’s aunt treats her niece very harshly, but she has also been put in this awkward, unwanted situation by Lilya’s mother, and the one moment that she shows Lilya some affection is cruelly rejected by the teenage girl.
It’s the friendship between Lilya and Volodya that forms the film’s emotional centre. Volodya has developed a boyish crush on the older girl, but there is real connection here too – both intelligent, damaged kids from broken homes, struggling to survive amongst the financial desolation of their country. There’s not much to do but wander around, sniff glue and try to keep warm at night (Lilya’s electricity is cut off because she can’t pay her bills, while Volodya is frequently kicked out by his abusive father). The film’s most touching moment comes when Lilya gives Volodya a basketball for his birthday, and the one thing that keeps her going during her terrible experiences in Sweden is an ongoing imagined dialogue with the boy.
As in his previous two films, Moodysson shoots with a handheld camera, and fills his film with superb, natural performances from a largely inexperienced cast. The locations are suitably grim – even affluent Sweden looks like a crumbing, deprived hellhole – but although the director does not shy away from showing the horrors of Lilya’s situation he doesn’t exploit them either. There is no nudity, and the sexual encounters are largely shot from her perspective, never dwelling upon them any longer than absolutely necessary.
There are no happy endings – although the final scene is quite uplifting, despite what it represents – but Moodysson deserves credit for making such a difficult, uncompromising film and seeing the narrative through to the bitter end. With a shocking number of Eastern European women forced into real-life situations like the one represented in the film, Lilya 4-Ever is an important work that visits places many film-makers would rather not go.
Aka: Lilja 4-ever
[Lilya 4-Ever is now available in a boxset with Lukas Moodysson’s other films – Fucking Amal, Together and A Hole in my Heart, released by Metrodome Pictures. Extras include early short films, trailers, interviews and making of featurettes]
Swedish writer-director who won international acclaim for his socially-conscious dramas: teenage romance Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love), commune drama Together and the tragic Lilya 4-Ever. After the harrowing, controversial Hole In My Heart he turned even more experimental with the reviled Container, then the thematically ambitious Mammoth. However, he secured his best reaction in years with his 2013 feminist punk comedy We Are the Best!