When Lilya’s mother tells her that they’re moving to America, the 16-year-old excitedly packs her modest possessions, carefully wrapping an icon that shows an angel guiding a young child. But there are no angels to help children in Lilya 4-Everor at least not in the film’s first two-thirds, which is the good part.
Lilya 4-Ever partially retraces the steps of Lukas Moodysson’s charming first feature, 1998’s Show Me Love. Again, a highway overpass symbolizes the isolation of an ordinary teenagerordinary, that is, except for her beautytrapped in a suburban wasteland. This time, though, the barren burg is not in affluent Sweden, but in a decrepit, unidentified part of the former Soviet Union. (The ex-USSR scenes were shot in Estonia.) And the central character has bigger problems than loneliness and unrequited love. Lilya (Oksana Akinshina, just seen in Filmfest DC’s Sisters) soon learns that her mother is going to the United States without her, leaving the high-school student without money to pay rent or buy groceries.
With the electricity shut off and no food in the kitchen, Lilya goes to a nightclub with her friend Natasha (Elina Beninson), who says they can turn tricks there for easy money. Lilya can’t bring herself to do it, but she gets labeled a whore anyway. Soon, Lilya’s only friend is glue-sniffing Volodya (Artiom Bogucharskij), a younger boy she shelters on the frequent occasions that his abusive father kicks him out. After Lilya actually does start hooking to survive, she meets gentlemanly Andrei (Pavel Ponomarev), who offers her romance and the promise of a job in Sweden.
Volodya tells Lilya that Andrei is conning her, but she doesn’t listen. Upon her arrival in Sweden, she finds herself the captive of a pimp who speaks to her in brusque English. (Most of the film’s dialogue is in Russian, a language Moodysson doesn’t speak.) The pimp takes her passport, locks her in an apartmentin a suburban high-rise district that looks much like the one she fledand sells her to a succession of callous men. Sweden, it turns out, is Russia with money.
Initially, Lilya 4-Ever seems a return to form for Moodysson after 2000’s Together, a ’70s-commune comedy that was convincing only when it focused on the kids. Characteristically, the writer-director uses close-ups and handheld camera to achieve a sense of intimacy, conveying Lilya’s plight most devastatingly with a montage of her loutish Swedish clients shot from the girl’s point of view. The film deftly adapts its rhythm to its protagonist’s mood, turning sprightly during Lilya’s occasional outbreaks of happiness. Moodysson, who obviously feels a special connection to youngsters, never lets you forget that Lilya is essentially a child.
Emulating his heroine’s naive worldview, however, leads Moodysson into treacherously sentimental territory. Angels ultimately do appear in Lilya 4-Evera bad idea visualized in a worse way. After an hour or so that’s almost as bracingly appalling as Irreversible, the film falters, giving the viewer time to contemplate all the director’s other miscalculations. Chief among those is the film’s main character. Moodysson is no doubt sincere in his concern for sexually exploited women and children from the former Eastern bloc, but the young Slavic hooker has already become a European cinematic cliché, whether in films as lightweight as The Good Thief or as heavy as Karim Traïdia’s The Polish Bride (part of Filmfest DC’s 1999 lineup).
In fact, the opening sequence of Lilya on the run closely resembles the intro of Traïdia’s moviealthough Moodysson, a pop-savvy guy, scores his version of the scenes to a Rammstein tune. But a distinctive soundtrack (which includes incidental music by former Shudder to Thinker Nathan Larson) is not enough. By the time the director hits the rewind buttonanother cliché of recent European cinemaLilya 4-Ever has moved from harrowing to hokey.
Andrei Konchalovsky’s House of Fools deploys a fantasy image that’s even clunkier than Lilya 4-Ever’s, and it does so immediately. As a group of inmates peers out a window, an extravagantly lighted train thunders past their asylum. On one of the cars is a crowd of revelers, including a flamenco dancer and a singerCanadian pop-rocker Bryan Adams, warbling “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?”
Konchalovsky, a Russian filmmaker who spent a mostly disappointing decade in the United States, seems mightily impressed that he enticed Adams to appear in his movie, playing the fantasy love interest of the institution’s most attractive inhabitant, accordion-playing Janna (Julia Vysotsky). The writer-director keeps reintroducing Adams, who walks through the film as if in a rock video he was contractually obligated to make. Every time heand that damn song!appears, the film’s bluish hue turns gold. Adams is a ray of sunshine warming, of all things, the Russian-Chechen civil war.
Without Adams, House of Fools might have been a respectable film, if hardly an original one. An opening title says the scenario is based on a true story, but it looks more as if it’s derived from musty ’60s and ’70s European art-film hits. Konchalovsky’s premisethat war renders the entire world a madhouseis lifted wholesale from Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, a World War I parable made in the Vietnam era. And the film’s seedy-sideshow vibe, complete with jaunty circus music and an acrobatic dwarf, is the property of Fellini’s estate.
The crux of the story is that the asylum is located near the Russian-Chechen border and thus is occupied by soldiers from both sides after the staff abandons the patients to the vagaries of war. When the Chechens are in residence, one of them proposes to Janna, who’s just a haircut away from conventional leading-lady status. (The rest of the cast is motley indeed, including some people who are clearly not playing at their conditions.)
Ahmed (Sultan Islamov) doesn’t really intend to marry Janna, but she wrestles with her loyalty to Adams and finally puts on a white dress. Then some Russian soldiers arrive to engage in a macabre trade. There’s no enmity between the two factionsthe Russian commander notes that a Chechen unit saved his in Afghanistanbut when a gun accidentally goes off, war resumes. After another lull, Russian troops attack, and the resulting sequence successfully illustrates Konchalovsky’s concept: Janna plays accordion as the battle rages, one of the inmates gets her hands on a machine gun, and a Russian helicopter crashes right on cue.
The movie’s not over, though. There will be more comings and goings, including two more Adams visitations. House of Fools doesn’t know when to quit, and it also doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of where it is. As the movie winds through its superfluous final half-hour, weary viewers may notice that it doesn’t really have anything to say about the Russian-Chechen conflict, a little-discussed subject that could have freshened up Konchalovsky’s trite war-is-just-nuts moral. CP