by Eli Hayes
From the December 2015 IssueFirst things first, don’t watch this movie. Don’t watch it if you want to come out of it feeling anything remotely close to euphoric, don’t watch it for purposes of entertainment and don’t watch it in order to escape, or you’ll be sorely disappointed. Only watch Lilja 4-Ever if you’re interested in throwing yourself head first into an abyss of poverty, abuse and horror—the most horrifying thing being how relentlessly truthful its depiction of reality is. This isn’t a horror film in the sense that it will leave you frightened of what might be hiding under your bed, in your closet or just outside your door. It’s a work of paralyzing realism that, rather than relying on the insane or the supernatural to frighten viewers, simply drops them into the existence of a terribly unlucky adolescent girl in Eastern Europe who, after being abandoned by her family and all but one of her friends, regrettably resorts to prostituting herself in order to eat, in order to survive. She has nothing to sell, nowhere to live and no friends to turn to, not a possession in the world to offer in exchange for a meal or a place to sleep—aside from her body.
It must be stated though, that director and provocateur Lukas Moodysson never attempts to endorse this “lifestyle choice,” for lack of a better term. He doesn’t try to make a commentary on whether what Lilja chooses to do with her body is right or wrong. He merely depicts what he believes to be the most likely outcome of an extremely unfortunate situation. A girl has been deserted by her mother, mistreated and manipulated by her aunt, and thrown onto the streets of a decaying, industrialized city—in the film’s opening sequence, the location is even described as “somewhere in what once was the Soviet Union.” So what is she to do: starve and allow herself to die off? The point of analysis isn’t whether or not Lilja’s decisions are on the moral up-and-up; there simply is no point of analysis.
There is nothing to decide, nothing to judge. Viewers are in no place to form an opinion on an unfathomable reality. Indeed, Lilja 4-Ever, with its remarkable child performances, gritty cinematographic style and undeniable authenticity, manages to transcend its status as a social commentary and become more the antithesis of what social commentaries are intended to be. There is no directorial statement made here and Moodysson never interjects his political beliefs or personal values. He creates a fictional film that could just as easily be a documentary—a film with only one goal in mind: to replicate the hopeless nature of certain distant lives.
The film’s opening scene is jarring and disorienting in that it takes place at the end of Lilja’s journey, three months consequent to her abandonment. Her face is bruised. She frantically runs the streets of a colorless urban environment with the intensity of Rammstein’s “Mein Herz Brennt” blasting in the background, communicating the rage and sadness that Lilja herself has been conditioned to suppress. She steps onto the ledge of a bridge overlooking a highway and contemplates jumping, deciding whether to break free from the cage that her life has become, only for the screen to cut to black and the title credit to appear.
From there, we are returned to an existence on the brink of chaos, hours before her mother breaks the news that she’ll be moving to America with her new boyfriend and leaving Lilja behind. Once that happens, everything begins to crumble and the non-linear structure of the narrative—the fact that, from the opening sequence, we know that she doesn’t emerge from her perils unscathed—makes bearing witness to her regression and degradation all the more difficult to endure.
Ultimately, one of the most admirable aspects of Lilja 4-Ever is the way in which it manages to depict a tragic and extraordinarily dramatic story without ever backsliding into unnecessary melodrama or exploiting its protagonist. Despite the hardships that Moodysson puts his main character through, you can feel his love for her, his hope for a better world and his desire to raise awareness of the truths that are so vastly underrepresented in the media. At one point in the film, Lilja reveals to her only remaining friend, Volodja, that she shares a birthday with Britney Spears, and it forces one to ponder the trajectories of certain lives. It makes one think about the differential paths people take: the ones that individuals choose and the ones that are chosen for them. Again, this is a difficult film to recommend and, to say the least, not an easy one to watch. Delve into the dark chasm of its world not for enjoyment or as a way to kill two hours, but to learn about an obscene and terrifying corner of our planet that is rarely explored with such care and respect, let alone mentioned much at all.