From those opening apocalyptic chords by industrial metal-heads Rammstein, as director Moodysson’s free-wheeling camera chases down a bruised and battered teenage girl stumbling through a bleak, formless cityscape, Lilya 4-Ever reveals itself as a dogged hunt, a pummelling pursuit. And here before us is our exhausted quarry.
Flashback to three months earlier, and the movie roughly grabs the pristine Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), quietly ecstatic, packing her bags, about to depart the drab, punishing former Soviet Union with her mother for America, and pitches her headlong down an interminable and hellish narrative staircase, hitting a world of pain with every bump. Her mother leaves without her. Bump. She’s evicted from her flat, flakes out of school, runs out of money, becomes a prostitute, gets beaten, gang-raped, bump bump, and is finally sold by her scheming lothario into the Swedish sex trade!
This unflinchingly sadistic narrative trajectory simply shouldn’t work. There’s little dramatic ebb and flow here. And yet, thanks to Moodysson’s genius casting and careful writing, the descent is as harrowing as it is relentless. There’s a hidden nobility behind Akinshina’s increasingly puffed Slavic eyes and soft girlish dimples, and a morality in her actions (she throws away ‘dirty’ money) that we latch onto for dear life. She displays foolhardy optimism (by trusting her slippery boyfriend against her better instincts) because it’s the only thing that can save her from a life of ruination. That it doesn’t, in the end, is what ultimately makes the movie so disturbing.