It’s my guess that in 99 out of 100 movies in which a woman appears as a prostitute, there is never much sense of who she was beforehand — or, indeed, of who she still is. The role of professional sinner subsumes her identity. Lilya 4-Ever, the new film by the Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson, is a haunting and incandescent work of art, and part of its extraordinary power is the way that Lilya (Oksana Akinshina), a 16-year-old Russian girl who lives in a sprawling, rotten-walled housing complex somewhere in the former Soviet Union, is quietly and harrowingly alive to us as a human being well before she begins her descent into the sex industry. She starts out as an innocent, a lost girl clinging to fragments of happiness, and she remains innocent even when she’s in the throes of violation. Her fall becomes ours as well.
Moodysson, who made the funny, wise Stockholm-in-the-’70s commune drama ”Together” (2001), works with a handheld camera and natural light and sound, crafting each scene as if it were part of a documentary caught on the fly. He shot much of ”Lilya 4-Ever” in Estonia, with a vividness that would have been hard to fake elsewhere, yet he’s no rambling, ascetic Dogmatist. Moodysson is closer in spirit to a modern-day Jean Renoir, infusing scenes with a compassion so fierce it seems to light his characters from within. When Lilya, her blond hair curled into what looks like angel’s wings, is abandoned by her mother, who runs off to America, the girl falls to her knees and slides, sobbing, into a mud puddle. That one moment calls up the trashed values and shattered bonds of an entire society.
Sweet, dimply, and conventionally rebellious, Lilya is left with nothing: no family, no money, no rituals of existence to sustain her through the days. Ditching school, she hangs around with Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskji), a lonely, glue-sniffing cherub of a boy who has been tossed out by his own barely functional clan. It’s the lower depths for real, and the emotion that these two kids at the bottom of a crumbling social and economic system develop for each other is enough to pierce your heart. Not much time passes before Lilya is drawn by a friend to the local disco, where middle-aged men prowl the dance floor in search of underage girls for hire.
She sells herself a couple of times, but it’s only when she meets Andrei (Pavel Ponomarev), a dashing, too-good-to-be-true suitor who treats her like a princess, that you know she’s in real trouble. Asked by Andrei to go with him to Sweden, Lilya thinks that her entire life is going to be redeemed.
Actually, it’s about to turn into a nightmare. Moodysson, shooting in a mode of unblinking empathy, presents her new existence as an enslaved prostitute, complete with coldly startling point-of-view shots of her thrusting clients. Her victimization is objectified, and that’s part of its desperate force. Did Moodysson need to go this far? A true artist could hardly have afforded not to. Some will say that where he really goes too far is in turning his characters into literal tragic angels. I would say that a filmmaker of such potent humanity has earned that metaphor of grace.