Mood Swing: Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever”
by Erin Torneo
A couple of years ago, Swedish poet-turned-filmmaker Lukas Moodysson (“Fucking Amal“) made international film critics’ best-of lists for his hilarious second feature, “Together.” An exuberant send-up of ’70s radicalism and hippie life, “Together” was truly enjoyable to watch. One can’t exactly say that about his riskier third film, “Lilya 4-Ever,” which Newmarket Films opened on Friday.
“Lilya” explores the brutal poverty in Russia’s housing projects — the bleak underbelly of its post-Soviet, newly capitalistic façade — and the requisite dream of escape. It’s a place so desperate that even a mother would forsake her child for the promise of a new life. That’s what happens to 16-year-old Lilya (played by Oksana Akinshina), who is forced to survive by any means necessary when her mother heads to the U.S. with an American husband. Lilya’s a pretty girl, looking for her own way out. Her quick descent from glue-sniffing and living in the projects, to prostitution and the road-to-hell is filled with relentless inhumanity that pummels the viewer like the hard-driving metal from Eastern Europe on the film’s soundtrack. When Lilya carves her name in a bench — a small, typically adolescent rebellion — it is not just a reminder of her childish naivete, but also one of the few acts of self she is allowed in a world where she has become a commodity. Akinshina’s and 11-year old newcomer Artiom Bogucharsky‘s (Volodya) extraordinary performances carry the film, lending depth to recurring fantasy sequences — though there is no escape. They are doomed children, and we know it.
Bob Berney, who was at IFC Films for the release of “Together,” acquired “Lilya” for distribution through his new post at Newmarket. “Lilya” may not have the fun and easy appeal of his last film, but Moodysson is well-worth cultivating a longstanding relationship with — he’s a bright new talent in world cinema, and he’s only just begun. Erin Torneo questioned the director via email about his difficult new film, teenage actors, working in Russian, and reality TV.
indieWIRE: I’d like to ask you for details about casting the two young leads — Artiom and Oksana are staggering discoveries. Their performances were so extraordinary — and had to be. How did you find them?
Lukas Moodysson: Finding the right actor for a part is the most important aspect, and it requires a lot of time and energy. We interviewed something like a thousand children and teenagers. Screen tests included improvisations on pretty basic themes such as: “You haven’t done your homework, so you’ve been grounded, and now you’re trying to convince your mother/father to let you go out after all.” I guess I trust my instincts. I don’t think I’m the greatest director in the world, but I am good at casting.
iW: Did the two of them have any previous acting experience?
Moodysson: Oksana had been in a movie prior to “Lilya.” Artiom didn’t have any prior experience. Their backgrounds and their real-life situations are very different than the characters they portrayed. Both have acted in several movies and/or TV series after they made “Lilya.”
iW: Do you speak Russian? If not, what was the shooting process like?
Moodysson: We used an interpreter. I don’t speak Russian. The members of the cast didn’t speak Swedish or English. But after a while a certain mode of intuitive communication evolves — looks, gestures, a few words you have in common — that is more important than the dialogue translated by the interpreter.
iW: Did you write the dialogue and have it translated, or did any of the actors improvise from your instructions?
Moodysson: A little bit of both, actually. The script was carefully written in Swedish and then it was translated into Russian. And often we followed the script to the letter. But when the cast and I were in a good mood, there could be a lot of improv as well.
iW: Had you traveled in the former Soviet Union previously?
Moodysson: Yes, a little, but not extensively. I really like Russia. I used to root for the USSR in ice hockey when I was a boy. The usually beat Sweden 10-0. My maternal grandmother’s grandmother came from Russia, which makes me 6.25 percent Russian, and I take great pride in that tiny part of my heritage.
iW: What about Russia made you want to set the story there, since as you put it, it could have been made in any poor country?
Moodysson: Mainly this is a film about Sweden and the affluent societies of the world. How we exploit and violate and kill poor people. This entire process was triggered by a photo of a lost little child running along the streets of my hometown. The fact that the project evolved into a film about a Russian girl was due to reality. I believe that most of the women and children who end up in circumstances like this in Sweden come from the Baltic countries.
iW: How long was the production?
Moodysson: The actual shooting process took something like 40 days, I think. That includes both Sweden and Estonia.
iW: Do you usually rehearse a great deal before shooting?
Moodysson: No. There’s not a lot of rehearsal. Rehearsing can make things stale, you lose the natural and spontaneous energy.
iW: Did you feel the popular success of “Together” allowed you to take greater risks with the subject matter in “Lilya”?
Moodysson: I’ve never felt that kind of confidence. I don’t know if I took greater risks with this film than I had taken before. That’s not the way I think. I make the movies I have to make. I try to be true to myself and to make the films that come to me. It doesn’t feel like a conscious decision process. I trust my instincts.
iW: Many have noticed that your main characters, from whom we get perspective, are often teenagers. You yourself first published a book at 17. What is it about adolescence — or the teenage experience — that attracts you?
Moodysson: I don’t know. Young people are more honest, up-front, brave and vulnerable, and they face the world with their eyes open. The years hopefully make you wiser, but your imagination is stunted and you lose a certain type of courage. But I don’t choose a certain perspective, it just happens. I don’t have a clue why, I guess I should go to a therapist and find out — but I don’t. I make films instead. I’m not particularly interested in probing the depths of my soul; I’m more into probing the world around me.
iW: You’ve remarked about American consumer culture, and have described talk shows like Ricki Lake‘s as “trading in lives”. What do you think about the unending wave of reality shows in the U.S. right now?
Moodysson: We have them in Sweden, too. Some of the reality shows around the world actually originated in this country. To me, they’re unbearable, but it’s important that you don’t pass judgment on the people participating in these shows without considering the forces at work here.
iW: As a director, particularly one who works with young people, how do you navigate the line between exploitation and art?
Moodysson: I can only trust my own moral standards. “Lilya” is a statement about human dignity, a quality that is constantly being eroded and corrupted in the world today by forces like political systems and a materialistic culture that allows anything and everything to be bought or sold.
iW: Speaking of buying and selling, and the corporate culture of Hollywood…If you made a film in English, and/or the U.S., what would you want to do?
Moodysson: Possibly a film about the impact of the U.S. health insurance system.