I caught the last twenty or so minutes of this film on my satellite TV’s World Movies channel. It caught my attention at the time and I made a promise to myself to track it down and watch it in full. As with most real life things, I never got around to it and, in fact, I even forgot the name of the movie.
The film is also known as Lilja 4-Ever.
Gratefully, one of the local movie rental stores in the town I lived in carried it and I got to watch it in full.
The movie made quite an impact on me as I’ll explain. To be sure, it pushes all the right buttons on an emotional level and it does railroad you down an inevitable headlong track of despair that most people will see coming a mile off. Still, the impact is undeniable. It’s based on the true story of a girl who killed herself in Sweden.
Lilya 4-Ever is a Swedish-made film that’s almost entirely spoken in the Russian language, with a couple of lines of Swedish and English interspersed, mainly toward the end. The DVD I watched was subtitled in English. Yes, that means it’s a film that most people will have to “read”.
I’ve seen the first film that the director, Lukas Moodysson, made: Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) and liked it in a major way. He shows a rare skill in dealing with young adolescents; one that never moralises or preaches, nor patronises their concerns in and with the world. Where his first film was decidedly upbeat and heart-warming, Lilya 4-Ever is anything but…
Lilya is a 16 year old girl stuck in a dead-end white trash world somewhere in the ruins of the former Soviet Union. She spends her idle moments dreaming of a better life amid glue-sniffing escapades and parties, all set among a backdrop of urban decay. The bleakness of her environment; buildings, weather and all, is magnificently captured. I’ve never seen such a sense of “residential wasteland” so well done.
Lilya’s mother has found herself a man via a dating agency and a new world in the United States beckons.
It all goes bitterly wrong for Lilya from here on out. Her mother and her fellow decide that three’s a crowd in the worst possible way and politely tell Lilya that they’ll send for her. In one of the most tragic moments of cinema history, Lilya realises she’s being abandoned and chases her mother outside to the car and begs her not to go. The English subtitling has Lilya saying: “I can’t make it on my own!” which is a dire piece of prophecy. The scene ends with Lilya kneeling in the mud in her nightie, seemingly aware whatever future she may have had has been destroyed in one uncaring moment.
So, a feckless (and reckless) schoolgirl is left to her own defences in a very much antipathetic world. Her only real solace from the evil around her is an 11 year old boy, Volodya. At nearly every step of the way, Volodya is beside her and he is her only friend in the entire film. Initially, he tries to hit on Lilya but she playfully rejects his advances.
Lilya has a painting of some Orthodox children’s guardian angel, to which she prays to periodically. If there was ever a sad indictment of putting one’s faith in the unseen and the make-believe, that is it. Praying does Lilya absolutely no good at all.
It gets worse for Lilya (it doesn’t get better). Her aunt throws her out of the comfortable flat she was living in, into a hovel previously occupied by a now-dead old man. Keeping in mind, that Lilya is a schoolgirl with no visible means of support, with her mother now on the far side of the world. Lilya and a school friend, Natasha, hit the local nightclub where Natasha whores herself out. Natasha later comes over to Lilya’s flat, with her father, and gives her the money as if it was Lilya’s. So, not only has Lilya’s mother deserted her, but the fairweather friends are now coming out of the woodwork.
The upshot of this is that Lilya is made out to be a whore and is shunned and spurned by her erstwhile friends. Volodya remains her only true companion. In hindsight, this particular development is a little far-fetched and Lilya makes no real moves to defend herself against what is essentially a ridiculous accusation. Alas, she gives in to bad choices for nearly all of the movie.
The film’s title comes from a scene that happens about this timeframe. Lilya scratches her name in a park bench, while copping invective from a bunch of boys on a nearby balcony. She writes her name in Cyrillic and 4-Ever in Latin. It’s as if to say, I am who I am, though God and everyone else may forsake me.
Out of pride, Lilya throws Natasha’s money away, a decision she regrets moments later. She has only money to buy a packet of cigarettes and small bag of chips. Soon after, her electricity is disconnected.
Lilya is told by Social Services that her mother has written to them from the USA to say Lilya is an unwanted child and has abrogated responsibility for her. Once again, I feel this is unbelievably far-fetched and probably over-the-top in regards to the downward spiral that is Lilya’s life. What it does serve to tell us is that Lilya is truly on her own, especially after her aunt gives her the wonderful advice to go to town and whore herself. With family like Lilya has, who needs enemies?
While spending a cold night in her flat with Volodya, Lilya is gang-raped by a bunch of young men. At this juncture, most people will be wondering what exactly Lilya has done to deserve the tribulations that have fallen on her from a great height. It’s a wonderful proof that there is no such thing as karma, and that what goes around doesn’t come around. It simply doesn’t happen. Justice is a human concept, not a natural one.
Driven to desperation, Lilya sells herself. As the fellow is panting and heaving, Lilya simply looks away and counts the walls. At the cessation of it all, Lilya runs to a corner and vomits up the contents of her stomach in self-loathing. Nonetheless, she has money and is able to buy Volodya the birthday present she had promised earlier. In a moment of rare glee, she poutingly buys up big from her local corner store, smirking the entire time.
In time, she meets Andrei, an apparently nice guy who wishes nothing more of her than to be her friend. Naively, she falls for him and his charms, and more importantly, falls for his story about a job in Sweden. At this stage, this bewildered and very much alone girl would probably be open to any suggestion. Volodya isn’t fooled; he knows Andrei is up to no good.
Andrei procures a fake passport for Lilya and then tells her he won’t be accompanying her due to an illness in his family. Rather than it setting off dozens of alarm bells, Lilya simply accepts this and happily boards the plane to Sweden. One of the more touching scenes is Lilya’s study of the airline meal she is given on the flight. She must’ve thought then she had finally transcended the ritual of privation she’d been subject to.
In the meantime, Volodya has taken his own life after swallowing a bottle of pills. In Sweden, Lilya is met by Witek who promptly takes her passport and then locks her in his flat. Once again, Lilya accepts this with a shrug and goes to sleep. In the morning she takes a bath and is raped by Witek when he comes back.
The truth of Lilya’s atrocious situation becomes all too clear to her and she knows she is suffering the fate thousands of her country-women have; she is a Russian prostitute sold into sex slavery in Western Europe. A litany of anonymous men use her, each of them heaving and panting from her perspective. She flees from Witek at one stage, only to be caught and beaten by him. She gets the ominous warning that if she runs to the police she’ll be deported and then she’ll be killed by his associates.
Volodya appears to her in a dream, where he is now an angel and exhorts her not to give up. After Witek had assaulted her, he’d left their door open, a fact the angelic Volodya informs her of and Lilya escapes out into a grey Swedish day. She flees from a police car, and, to the accompaniment of a grinding Rammstein song, she kills herself by jumping off an overpass onto a freeway below.
The movie ends with an angel-winged Lilya and Volodya blissfully playing basketball together on the roof of some nameless tenement. The world can’t hurt them now and they’ve been set free.
The question has to be asked; what was the point of this film? Was it to highlight the plight of young women from the former Soviet Union, who now find themselves on sale in richer parts of the world? Was it to illustrate that the sole aim of all adults in this world is to exploit and abuse children? That we live in a cruel world? That there are sometimes no answers to the horrors that befall us? All and none, I guess.
I initially had dramas composing this little epistle with any kind of neutrality. My buttons had been pushed and I was rendered stunned by the entire thing. Me and many others. Like I mentioned at the top of this review, you can see it all coming a mile off with Lilya, but it does not diminish the impact of her dreadful fate at all. It’s all very sad.
Though at no stage does Lilya ask for or deserve the abuse she receives, she makes one wrong-headed decision after another. She doesn’t really try and help herself. It’s like she knows she’s doomed and is fated to act out that part in her all-too-brief life. She doesn’t seek any real help from anyone, such as school counsellors, the welfare agencies, churches or anything. She gives up, basically. She smart-mouths and one-ups her way around the tenement world she lives in as well. It could well be she has no faith in any adult to save her and she feels she needs to make it on her own wiles.
What a shame she doesn’t.
Lilya is played by Russian actress, Oksana Akinshina (Оксана Акиньшина). Played is too weak a word. You aren’t watching a movie here; it’s like a documentary. It’s so well made and played out that the illusion of watching a moment in some stranger’s life is real. She is unspeakably superb in the role. Alas, here in far off Australia, I’m going to have dramas tracking down her other work. Her bit part in the Bourne Supremacy was a complete and utter waste, in my humble opinion. Oksana Akinshina is simply and overwhelmingly magnificent in the role. Plus, she’s drop-dead gorgeous (and she’s only gotten better over the years). Did I mention that?