Dir: Lukas Moodysson. Sweden. 2002. 109 mins.
After a promising debut with Show Me Love (known in some territories as Fucking Amal), Swedish wunderkind Lukas Moodysson entered the major league with his last film, Together, a study of a dysfunctional 1970s commune that combined wry humour with emotional torture. Moodysson seemed faintly annoyed that so many people found Together more comic than tragic. His latest offering, Lilja 4-Ever (which is once again screening at Venice, in the Controcorrente section) allows no such misreading, with pain and misery all the way in his chronicle of an East European teenager. But while it makes for strong and mostly compelling material, it lacks not only the humour but also some of the subtlety and perceptiveness of the director's first two outings. Moodysson is fast building up a following on the European arthouse circuit, but Lilja 4-Ever has none of the easy crossover appeal of Together, which brought him into the sights of more than one US producer. However, the Moodysson name may yet carry it with sympathetic audiences: in its first weekend in Sweden, Lilja 4-Ever took $196,007 from 52 screens.
Imagine Larry Clark or Harmony Korine directing a movie with Russian dialogue scripted by the bastard son of Henrik Ibsen and you come close to the feel of Lilja 4-Ever. A story of abandonment, brutality and teenage prostitution, the film flips between a crumbling housing estate somewhere in the ex-Soviet Union and a grey Swedish suburb. It's subject is Lilja, a 16-year-old Russian girl, whose life goes from bad to worse with the steady inevitability of Greek tragedy. When her mother heads off for the States with her new boyfriend, Lilja is left in the care of an aunt who moves her into a hovel so she can take over the family apartment. Money runs out, the electricity is cut off and when the long-awaited letter from America finally arrives, it contains not a bundle of dollars but the mother's formal renunciation of all responsibilty for her daughter. And that's just the beginning. The only ray of light in a cruel world is Lilja's friendship with Volodya, a street kid two years her junior; in the best Clark/Korine tradition, glue sniffing in an abandoned submarine base is about as good as it gets.
Young actress Oksana Akinshina, already seen in Sergej Bodrov's Sisters, is the focal point of the story and the camera, and she bears the scrutiny well, conveying the right balance of hard-bitten hatred of the world and girlish vulnerability. And as always, Moodysson uses music to good effect - from the German uber-rock that accompanies Lilja's final flight from her pimp to the bland dance music that provides a soundtrack for today's Nike- and Malboro-worshipping Eastern-Bloc youth.
There are moments of visual inspiration, as when the camera takes a Lilja's-eye-view of the succession of sad overweight men she services, utterly deglamourising the sexual act. But there are also miscalcualtions, most alarmingly when Volodya returns to Earth, as a stubby-winged angel, in Wim Wenders mode. By then the audience has borne so much brutality for the sake of the director's vision that such a cliched image of hope and redemption comes as a disappointment. But by this point, we're ready to suffer to the end: we're ready to take it, even if the box office maybe can not.
Prod co: Memfis Film
Swe dist: Sonet Film
Int'l sales: Trust Film Sales
Prod: Lars Jonsson
Scr: Lukas Moodysson
Cinematography: Ulf Brantas
Prod des: Josefin Asberg
Ed: Michal Leszczylowski
Music: Nathan Larson
Main cast: Oksnana Akinshina, Artiom Bogucharskij, Elina Beninson, Lilja Shinkareva, Pavel Ponomarev, Tomas Neumann