(SCREENED AT THE 2003 PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.) Could somebody mail Sweden a few tons of Prozac already? Director Lukas Moodysson’s latest is an astonishingly morbid take on modern-day white slavery, dealing with the sexual exploitation of impoverished Russian girls. Not only is it a downer, it’s finally nothing BUT a downer, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.Beginning in rather unpromising fashion, with the titular Lilja running frantically down the street as an absolutely terrible death metal song plays, the film soon settles into a cinema verite look at the lives of the Russian underclass. Pretty, naïve 16-year-old Lilja (pronounced, I think, “LIE La”) is forced to make do after her mother moves to America without her; her only companion is a younger boy who digs basketball, recreational drug use, and not much else. Here, Russia looks like outtakes from Gummo, complete with glue-sniffing episodes and pointless screwing-around, but Moodysson brings a certain authenticity to the proceedings; all this squalor looks convincing enough. He sometimes overplays his hand, which means we get a few cliché “poignant” moments with Lilja staring forlornly at a photo of her mother and so forth—but, at least in these early scenes, the film feels solid; it benefits from a fine sense of pacing.
With no real means of support, Lilja gradually drifts into prostitution, and the film itself begins to drift into dangerous territory. In detailing Lilja’s progressive degradation, Moodysson simply pushes too hard. He goes overboard to be “powerful” and “heartbreaking” (to list two adjectives that will likely appear on the film poster); there’s something almost pornographic in the manner the film illustrates her predicament. It’s not that the sex scenes are graphic—in fact, they’re shot in a non-exploitative way—but we’re not allowed to do anything but feel sorry for poor Lilja. It’s too manipulative; it’s simply another kind of voyeurism. The film offers no more insight into the dark, dank world of teenage prostitution than Showgirls did into Las Vegas.
The ending is awful. I’m obliged to be vague here, but let’s just say everything gets resolved in the worst way imaginable; the film chokes to death on an excess of melodrama. (The audience I viewed it with gasped incredulously as the closing credits appeared.)I suppose the film is well intentioned, but it doesn’t leave you indignant at social injustice. It leaves you wanting to take a shower.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.