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<i>Lilya 4-Ever</i>: no other world

About the author
Chris Darke is a London-based writer and film critic. He has contributed to Film Comment, The Independent,Sight and Sound, Frieze, Trafic and Cahiers du cinema and is the author of Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Art, Wallflower Press. A Letter from London by the author is online at

The young Swedish director Lukas Moodysson made his name with Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000), two light and likeable films focusing on the emotional lives of young people. But whereas Together was a good-hearted comedy about the perils of living in a 1970s Swedish commune, Moodysson’s new film Lilya 4-Ever is an uncompromising howl of rage at predatory capitalism, social atomisation and the sexual trafficking of children.

Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is a 16 year-old girl living in the squalid desolation of a housing estate somewhere in the post-Communist Baltic. Abandoned by her mother (any reliable father-figure is significantly absent) and ejected from the family’s apartment by her aunt, Lilya finds herself living alone in a filthy flat whose former resident is a recently deceased old soldier.

Her closest companion is Volodya (Artiom Bogucharsky), a younger, equally neglected sprite-like boy whose twin fixations are the basketball star Michael Jordan and the desirability of an early death. When Lilya falls for a handsome guy she meets in a local bar and agrees to travel to Sweden with him, she discovers that she’s been sold to a pimp. It becomes clear that Moodysson, in describing the sorrowful trajectory of Lilya and Volodya, intends to portray their desolate limbo as a kind of hell-on-earth.

Lilya as pure victim

It was the rallying cry of the anti-globalisation movement – ‘Another World is Possible’ – that came to my mind while watching Lilya 4-Ever. After all, it is ‘another world’ that Lilya, and everybody around to her, is desperately seeking. Her mother’s departure for the fantasy-world of the United States is symptomatic, while the fantasies of escape that Lilya and Volodya entertain are infused with American totems: Michael Jordan and Britney Spears appear as icons of utterly unattainable achievement, and the pair of infant dreamers sport the global uniform of sportswear labels while dosing themselves up on vodka and glue.

Lilya’s own journey from Baltic squalor to the ‘other world’ of Sweden passes through the few brightly-lit spaces that the film incorporates in a palette otherwise keyed to its landscape of gunmetal skies, sleet-doused concrete and stained sheets. But the bright lights of the local shop and disco only serve to lure Lilya further into hell and it’s in the disco that the film’s central scene takes place.

Here, Lilya goes out with a friend who turns a trick at the disco to make some cash. The following morning, there’s a rap at Lilya’s door and her friend, with her glowering father in tow, gives her earnings to Lilya pretending they belong to her; later, at school, the friend explains to Lilya that she had told her father it was Lilya who had made the money through prostitution.

In only a few short scenes, Moodysson sketches a portrait that is both psychologically plausible (based on the moral pliability of frightened children) and socially acute (from here on Lilya is branded as a ‘whore’). It is only a matter of time before local boys are shouting abuse at her from a balcony and then, with grim inevitability, gang-raping her. And so, Lilya is delivered to her fate as pure prey.

From togetherness to anomie

One of the pleasures of Together lay in the skill with which Moodysson used an ensemble cast to delineate the wider society, from hippy idealism to working-class suspicion, and filtered it through the perspective of children. In Lilya 4-Ever, this ensemble approach is completely shattered; characters don’t relate to each other through relationships that nurture or illuminate either through conflict or affinity. Instead, the characters use, abuse and discard each other; they are little more than circuits through which passes a current of evil.

I use the word ‘evil’ advisedly – because the analysis of social reality offered in the film (such as it is) is so profoundly pessimistic and angry that the only possible redemption it leaves available to the director as an alternative (as, indeed, ‘another world’) is Lilya’s belief in God’s benevolence.

Lilya has one treasured possession, a painting of a female angel leading a little boy by the hand. She imagines Volodya as an angel, complete with feathery wings. I do not believe that Moodysson’s recourse to such a kitsch image of the divine intends to mock the imagination of his character – he is still too much of a humanist director for such cruelty, and Lilya is simply too compelling (thanks to Akinshina’s tremendous conviction in the role) – but it gives a shop-soiled quality to the transcendent that seems all the director has left to offer her.

Rage is fine fuel for a film but can render its emotional textures narrow. And while one cannot doubt Moodysson’s own horror at ‘this filthy world’ (as he called it in a radio interview), in Lilya 4-Ever he finds it difficult to transform his rage into art. Nevertheless, in European cinema’s gallery of sacrificial girls Bresson’s Mouchette and the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta now form a trinity with Moodysson’s Lilya. Another world is possible? Not according to this film. Not on this earth, at least.

Lilya out on the town with the best friend who will let her down

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