It’s a grim tale, the one that inspired Lukas Moodysson to write and direct Lilya 4-Ever. In 2000, Swedish media reported about the death of Danguolé Rasalaité, a 16-year-old girl from Lithuania, who had been promised work in the Swedish city of Malmö and went there with help from a male friend. Once in Sweden, a Russian man had taken her passport and told her that she needed to pay him back for expenses by becoming his prostitute. After three months, and one night when she had been raped by three men, she killed herself by jumping off a bridge.
Moodysson was, one would assume, touched and infuriated by her story and wrote what would become one of his most talked-about films internationally.
We are in a country somewhere that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Lilya (Oksana Akinshin) is a 16-year-old girl who lives in a working-class neighborhood together with her mother (Lyuboc Agapova). She’s been telling her friends that she’s soon moving to the United States thanks to her mom’s boyfriend, but when the day comes Lilya’s mother tells her that she must stay behind for a while and live with her aunt. Lilya is devastated and learns after some time that her mother has no intention of reconnecting with her daughter. Lilya is slowly drawn into prostitution via a friend, but then a young man (Pavel Ponomaryov) woos her and starts talking about escaping to Sweden…
Misery and heartbreak
Watching this movie back in 2002 was something of a shock. Moodysson’s previous film, Together (2000), was a delightful comedy, and his first (Show Me Love (1998)) a realistic teen drama but with an uplifting finale. There was no light whatsoever in Lilya 4-Ever, only misery and heartbreak. You were definitely meant to feel bad after watching it, and hopefully angry about young women being forced into prostitution. Moodysson makes an effective point out of contrasting Lilya’s drab life back home with what she’s subjected to in Sweden; her only entry into nicer quarters in this new country is through rape committed by anonymous men, many of them fathers and husbands. There’s a memorably revolting scene near the end where the client forces her to pose as his daughter, so that he can live out his forbidden fantasies. There is so much tragedy in this film that it goes a little too far; dramatically, Moodysson offers us no chance to be surprised at anything. As soon as it looks like something good might happen to Lilya, we can count on even more abuse coming her way. It’s too obvious, even if Moodysson avoids going off a cliff the way he did two years later with the abysmal Hole in My Heart.
Still, it’s terrifyingly realistic, shot on location in Estonia and Sweden, with moving moments of magical realism near the end that could have hurt the movie but don’t. Akinshina (who spoke no English or Swedish and had to communicate with Moodysson via an interpreter) is excellent in the lead; Lilya’s friendship with the younger Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskiy) is beautifully framed by the director who’s turned into an expert at depicting children on screen.
The film has been used by humanitarian groups in Europe to inform the public about human trafficking. One thing Lilya 4-Ever achieves is never sexualizing Lilya for the audience; in most ways, she’s still a child and that aspect is always highlighted.
Lilya 4-Ever 2002-Sweden-Denmark. 109 min. Color. Produced by Lars Jönsson. Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson. Cast: Oksana Akinshina (Lilya), Artiom Bogucharskiy (Volodya), Lyubov Agapova (Lilya’s Mother), Liliya Shinkaryova, Elina Benenson, Pavel Ponomaryov.
Trivia: Original title: Lilja 4-ever. Alexandra Dahlström, star of Moodysson’s Show Me Love, served as assistant director on this film.
Last word: “I cannot guarantee the words they’re saying in the film are correct! But I could control the emotional levels and how they were acting. The first day was very difficult; it was very wet and muddy, and the actors weren’t acting very well. So I told them to improvise because they were following the script too closely. They started talking completely freely, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I remember just falling back into the mud, because everything was complete chaos, and then I just decided to let the chaos reign.” (Moodysson on directing his Russian-speaking cast, BBC)