Moving, Disturbing Lilja 4-Ever Soars to the Heavens

Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-Ever , from his own screenplay, in Russian and Swedish with English subtitles, has moved me and shaken me as no other new movie has this year. And therein lies a paradox: Though the reviews have been great, the reactions at film festivals enthusiastic, and the film itself chosen by Sweden (reportedly with Ingmar Bergman’s blessing) as its selection for the Oscars’ Foreign-Language Film category, there is something in the advance descriptions of the film that may discourage the casual moviegoer from seeking it out. Any rudimentary synopsis, for example, makes the film sound excessively morbid and depressing. And there’s no getting around it: The enormous amount of pain, suffering and humiliation heaped upon the teenage heroine would never be tolerated by a civilized audience if it were inflicted on an animal.

Yet Mr. Moodysson manages to detoxify the evil that engulfs Lilja (the amazingly affecting Oksana Akinshina) and her younger soulmate, Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky), by lifting them to a higher level of being to compensate for the innocence that is so unjustly stolen from them. If this sounds a bit vague and abstract, I must turn to the writer-director’s own comment on his sublimely realized film: “It was supposed to be a film about God’s benevolence, but reality reared its head and it became something else. It turned into a film about two children, Lilja and Volodya, who live in a country that was once part of the mighty Soviet empire and which now lies in ruins.

“It turned into a film about the longing to be somewhere, about leaving everything behind, about being left behind alone, about rich people who think that everything can be bought, about poor people who are forced to sell everything they have (besides their heart), about things that happen far away and about things that happen on the street where I live, about cough syrup and glue, about basketball, about Britney Spears, about carving your name into a bench so that everyone can see that you exist, about being spat at, about giving up, about death, and about a friendship that never ends, about a candle that never burns out. And perhaps it’s a little bit about God’s benevolence as well-despite the fact that He never answers when Lilja prays to him.”

The first impression we have of Lilja is of a sassy teenager lording it over her classmates because she imagines she is going to America with her sour-spirited mother and her mother’s current boyfriend. But when her mother tells her that she will be left behind in the apartment with an aunt “temporarily” caring for her, Lilja is devastated, knowing intuitively that she is being abandoned. This is only the first of several betrayals that will eventually make her life hell on earth. When the aunt arrives, the first thing she does is remove Lilja from her comfortable but expensive apartment and proceed to dump her in a one-room flat in a hotel in a poorer neighborhood. Yet, at about this point, Lilja begins to arouse our sympathy and admiration by her spunky resilience in the face of her misfortunes, which include a gang rape by neighborhood youths and a betrayal by her girlfriend, who-fearing her father’s retribution-attributes her own act of prostitution to Lilja, thus ruining her reputation and actually precipitating the gang rape.

Lilja’s only reliable friend is Volodya, but he’s been thrown out of his apartment by his alcoholic father and has sought refuge in an abandoned submarine base built by the Russian empire. The film was actually shot in Estonia, but Mr. Moodysson makes several architectural statements on the bleakness and impersonality of lower-class Russian life. Indeed, the film is rich in tell-tale details befitting these lives of terminal desperation.

Lilja very reluctantly sells her body on one occasion, but she throws up immediately afterward, and tries to find another way out of her difficulties. Just when she has given up hope, a seeming Prince Charming appears on the scene after a suspicious car pick-up, but he behaves like a perfect gentleman and takes Lilja on innocent dates at fairs. If one has seen Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), in which Giulietta Masina’s street-walking Cabiria believes in the true love of an opportunist, one wants to warn Lilja of what will inevitably befall her. Her little friend Volodya warns her against the stranger, but she won’t listen. Lilja’s joyous smile as she crashes around in her carnival car with her respectful “suitor” calls to mind Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), in which Nadine Nortier’s badly treated teenage peasant girl enjoys a similarly brief interlude of glowing pleasure at the carnival. Mr. Moodysson yields nothing to Bresson or Fellini in his brilliant evocation of the bitter irony inherent in his heroine’s illusory respite from her torments. Sure enough, her Prince Charming turns out to be a cynical procurer who persuades her to accompany him to a new life in Sweden with a forged passport. There, she becomes the prisoner of a prostitution ring and is forced to do their bidding. She begins to hallucinate that she is still with her friend Volodya, and he leads her to the only place in which she will suffer no more.

It is at this point that the film soars to the heavens with the simplest and most seemingly naïve means. It may be at this point also that I realized I had never completely outgrown my own earliest religious feelings. Earlier in the film, Lilja attaches great importance to a religious illustration of the Madonna comforting a young girl. I suddenly recalled in my own childhood a large, kitschy, realistic painting in the bedroom my kid brother and I shared. In the painting, a very large angel casts his arms protectively over two children, one clearly older than the other, as they stand dangerously close to a cliff. I seemed to have repressed my memory of this painting, even after my brother died in a sky-diving accident in 1960. When the completely disillusioned Lilja throws away her Madonna picture, I empathized on a deeper level than I have become used to. When she tells one of her enraged clients that he can buy her body but not her soul, I thought of Max Ophüls’ Lola Montés (1955), in which Martine Carol’s Lola is endowed by Peter Ustinov’s ringmaster with the same distinction.

Finally, Mr. Moodysson is to be commended for the respect he shows for Lilja and her story. He never shows her completely topless, and he de-eroticizes the many repetitive sex scenes by restricting them to shots from Lilja’s disenchanted point of view: a variety of ridiculously wheezing males performing a heartlessly mechanical activity.

Still, there is much more to Lilja 4-Ever than the story of one abused teenage heroine. There is also an indictment of the kind of globalization that has led to a frenzied appetite for consumer goods and comforts, while abandoning millions of people to a bitterly deprived existence in which children are the most vulnerable victims. What Lilja 4-Ever has in common with the greatest films is its spiritual transcendence. Don’t miss it.

Odd Couple

Patrice Leconte’s The Man on the Train ( L’Homme du Train ), from a screenplay by Claude Klotz, celebrates with grace, humor and considerable charm the very human tendency to yearn, late in life, for the road not taken. Two men, one a lifelong criminal named Milan (Johnny Hallyday), the other an elderly, retired schoolteacher named Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), meet by chance in a small, provincial French town. Milan has just arrived on a train from Paris and, as we learn, is planning to rob a bank with the help of confederates who have not yet arrived. Unable to find accommodations at the local hotel, which is closed in the off-season, Milan accepts the teacher’s invitation to stay with him.

From this chance encounter, there emerges not only a close friendship, but a desire by each man to lead the other’s kind of life. There’s not much else to the plot, but the delight is in the details. The unlikely rapport between Milan and Manesquier is achieved mostly through the equally unlikely rapport between Mr. Hallyday, an international pop-music star, and Mr. Rochefort, a veteran stage and screen actor. When Milan tries on Manesquier’s lounging slippers, we feel an actor shifting gears between hard-boiled and soft-hearted. And when Milan finds himself unexpectedly tutoring one of Manesquier’s private students on a Balzac novel, Mr. Hallyday plays the scene straight and sincere, as if he were a real teacher, albeit with a gruff, no-nonsense manner.

Manesquier has less opportunity to slip into Milan’s more adventurous travel shoes. He’s too old and infirm to help Milan rob a bank; all he can do is dream of taking a train out of his town to face the unknown challenges of Paris, as he’s wanted to do all his life. In the final images of the film, Manesquier is seen fulfilling his fantasy.

But in between, both Milan and Manesquier face fearsome obstacles to their very existence, Manesquier with a coronary-bypass operation and Milan with a fatally compromised bank robbery. Time has run out for both men, but only on a prosaic level. Like almost all good films, The Man on the Train ends less as earthbound prose than as soaring poetry. This is an aesthetic will-o’-the-wisp that I’ve been pursuing for many years. The cinema, I maintain, is ideally more suited to poetry than prose, more given to emotional recapitulation than to ideological formation, more Bazin than Eisenstein, more visceral than cerebral, more Spinoza than Descartes, and more a window to another universe than a mirror on our own.

These are all oversimplifications, I know. But after two films like Lilja 4-Ever and The Man on the Train , I find myself more enamored than ever with my speculations. In addition, my auteurist predilections kick in with my fond memories of Mr. Leconte’s previous work, such as Monsieur Hire , Ridicule , The Hairdresser’s Husband , The Girl on the Bridge , Tango and, most recently, The Widow of St. Pierre . Although The Man on the Train could be designated as a mature buddy picture, there is one memorable female performance by Isabelle Petit-Jacques as Manesquier’s mistress, Viviane, who serves to help define the purely and unselfishly fraternal relationship between the two men. The Man on the Train is another film not to be missed.

Bodega Dreams

Alfred De Villa’s Washington Heights , from a story by Manny Perez, has won several awards at film festivals around the world, and as a first feature on a very low budget, it deserves a certain amount of applause for having been made at all, let alone with at least a modicum of coherence and conviction. Unfortunately, it’s stronger and more impressive in conveying the atmosphere of a particular place and time within a particular ethnic community (Dominican) than in directing its narrative current, in which a half-dozen characters swim around with uncertain articulation and motivation.

The plot concerns a Dominican bodega owner named Eddie Ramirez, who has been made a paraplegic by an armed robber, thus forcing his artistically ambitious son Carlos to defer his cartooning ambitions to take over the bodega. Tomas Milian is more interesting as the embittered bodega owner than Manny Perez is as his son, a perpetually-preoccupied-with-his-career sourpuss who ruins his desultory romance with Maggie (Andrea Navedo), who is by turns whiny and stoical. A subplot involving Mickey Kilpatrick (Danny Hoch), an Irish chum of Carlos’ who dreams of bowling trophies, and Angel (Bobby Cannavale), a drug dealer who supplies the final stroke of violence, seems tacked onto the main plot. Mr. De Villa seems to have the talent to do better, if only he can find stronger characters and story lines than he has at his disposal here.

Moving, Disturbing Lilja 4-Ever Soars to the Heavens