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Enforced Transnational Mobility in Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-Ever

Lukas Moodysson has a complicated relationship with his own national cinema whereby his work sitting on the periphery between art house cinema and popular culture. As an internationally esteemed auteur, his films have met with both national and international critical acclaim and are widely recognized through their deployment of left-wing, feminist discourses. Within Lilja 4-ever (2002), Moodysson explores the notion of fragmented identity under neo-liberal, global capitalism, addressing geopolitical exploitation and rape by the triumphant, ideological West, depicting these gaps between affluence and destitution through merging a cinema vérité aesthetic with a series of profound allegories. In doing so, however, the film thematizes an intercultural encounter that also exposes parallels between a global transnational subject matter and an embedded Nordic anxiety.

While its focus appears to be that of enforced transnational mobility, Lilja 4-ever also exposes, in a paradoxical sense, Moodysson’s own nationally-orientated anxieties surrounding the transient nature of identity. Although the narrative follows the plight of a trafficked Russian teenager in Sweden, in an apparent exposé of sex-trafficking as a global concern, there is a sense that Lilja-4 ever betrays an attempt to conserve a ‘collective’ Swedish identity. These findings further compound the notion of both national and transnational cinema in several different ways. The film also resurrects the significance of the auteur’s role in relation to Nordic global, transnational identity. The underlying principle is thus to identify facets of the film text that allegorize or highlight an engagement with a national consciousness. This is not so much an argument that seeks to comprehensively define Lilja 4-ever as national or transnational, but instead explore ways in which it may characterised as either.

Enforced Transnational Mobility

Lukas Moodysson is a protégé of Lars Von Trier’s residual Dogme 95 movement, a project whose very objectives sought to transcend national boundaries and prescribed methods of cinematic practice and policy. In his later films, Moodysson sets out to explore the darker, more elusive aspects of transnationalism, frequently crisscrossing and marrying agencies of transnationalism with international consumption and exploitation. Particularly prevalent themes include notions of patriarchal ascendency and the resulting subjugation of women. In Lilja 4-ever, Moodysson instead negotiates his transnational text from the outside in, one the one hand problematizing the notion of the film as a ‘national’ text. The origins of the story, however, maintain specific links to the Swedish nation. The script was based on the real-life case of Dangoule Rasaiaite, a 16 year old Lithuanian girl who made headlines in Sweden in 2000 when she jumped from a bridge to her death in a bid to escape a sex-trafficking ring. Based around the horrors of this transnational reality, Moodysson’s film is ostensibly motivated by an aspiration to illustrate the Western male desire for post-Soviet prostitutes through exposing the logistics of the sex trafficking industry and its ramifications within his home country.

This film was screened in Brussels at the European Parliament in the midst of a dialogue concerned with the global sex trade and the role of EU policy. The film was considerably influential regarding these subjects. This is exacerbated by the reality of sexual exploitation in post-Soviet Russia, a phenomenon facilitated by the fall of communism and the dissolution of national borders. Through this, Moodysson identifies and explores the Non- European Other and the role of women as key facets within his chronicle of transnational fragmentation, ultimately through a narrative concerned with this negative female transnational migration.  The tragedy of Lilja’s situation is amplified by the juxtaposition of the financial and economic statuses of the two countries. Although the legality of prostitution continues to divide European nation, the release of the film concurrently witnessed a set of new legislative regulations in Sweden prohibiting the purchase of sexual favours in tandem with the de-criminalization of sex workers. In spite of these aspects, however, further questions need to be raised regarding whether transnational representations of sex work still harbours the neo-colonial dynamic of ‘us’ verses ‘them’.

This rate of exchange on the human body also allows Moodysson to calibrate his apparent transnational target: global consumer capitalism. As Torneo reinforces “Lilya is a statement about human dignity, a quality that is constantly being eroded and corrupted in a world today by forces like political systems and a materialistic culture that allows anything and everything to be bought or sold.”1. One of the other ways in which Moodysson bolsters this association between Lilja and consumer capitalism is through the circulation of corporate insignias. McDonald’s is a prominent global conglomerate that frequently features. Not only does it become Lilja’s only form of artificial sustenance, a cheap and temporary remediation of the forced sex she must endure, but its prevalence also mirrors her position as a disposable commodity.

As the film sets about providing us with a social commentary on a transnational reality, throughout Lilja 4-ever any manifestations of home as a fixity or corporeal presence is perpetually deferred. In this sense, all the characters, including Volodja and Lilja’s mother for instance, engage in displacement activities designed to supplement this absence. Instead, American popular culture sustains this Western artifice of freedom and prosperity, masking the discord between image and reality. Lilja’s impoverished situation runs parallel to the capitalist-orientated plethora of men who pay to exploit her. Hunter Vaughn draws on Moodysson’s efforts as a campaign towards a shift in the demarcation of national borders and cultures. “This is Lukas Moodysson’s portrait of twenty-first century western civilization: a civilization where the boundaries of nations and national cultures must be recast due to the proliferation of social technologies without borders, and where the human body will be economically mapped no longer as a marker for labour, but as an exchange rate in desire and consumption.”2 In doing so, it is almost as if Moodysson paints economic necessity and the enslavement Lilja is subjected to as a contingent dynamic.

Some of the most sobering and arguably pivotal scenes that form a juncture of these debates occur when Lilja is raped and exploited by a succession of men. These sequential, claustrophobic images are achieved through point-of-view shots, shifting between close-ups and extreme close-ups of each male client forcing themselves on the passively accepting Lilja. Naturally, when this subject position is adopted, the audience experience a shared sense of this violation. In his depiction of the men, Moodysson does not discriminate in terms of race, age or class. These episodic scenes last for only a few frames each but their temporality feeds the notion of Lilja as a just another fleeting transnational commodity.

In an ironic sense, many of the insipid sepia locations used to frame Malmö and with absence of any national or cultural land marks erased, Sweden is barely discernible from its dilapidated Post-Soviet counterpart. This creates no clear sense of dichotomy between the two countries. These raw, ungraded stylistic qualities bear a direct correlation with the aforementioned Dogme movement, helping to procure a sense of social realism and cement the gravity of these scenes.

National Allegories

Whilst its transnational credentials appear clear, Lilja 4-ever may also be encoded with a less visible Nordic perspective. One of the ways in which the film does this is through its failure in addressing a Russian perspective. In this sense, the Post-Soviet framework may instead function as a narrative device that exists to produce empathy for Lilja. Aimed with a Nordic audience in mind, Lilja 4-ever this device seeks to engage a self-reflexive politics within its spectators, a perspective fostered and informed through Nordic world-views and identity concerns. The lack of Russian participation in the film as Swedish-Danish co-production points towards Moodysson’s desire to tell a story that addresses a Nordic context. The narrative is particularly resonant in Sweden as it relays the plight of Dangoule Rasaiaite. In this sense, Lilja’s fate is already suffused in the minds of the Swedish audience. Part of this context in the same sympathetic guise may be focused on vindicating the reasons why young Eastern European women and girls leave their post-Soviet homelands and unpacking them for a Nordic audience. Another way this film may have been an attempt to engage a Swedish or Nordic national consciousness could be seen to be illustrated when Lilja’s mother abandons her in favour of a new life in the United States. The ease with which she is able to depart from her impoverished life would be an aspect unfamiliar to a contemporary Russian audience, particularly one from a deprived or working class neighbourhood. These scenes are protracted, pitting Lilja’s initial indifference against her childlike outpouring of desperation. This pathos thus helps to contextualize and secure the compassion and understanding of his national audience.

In this sense, Moodysson relies on the shared values and identities of Scandinavia’s strict position on the elimination of prostitution and sexual exploitation.  In another significant scene of self-reflexivity, Lilja is brought to the house of an upper middle class Swedish man. Within this display of affluence and surrounded by paraphernalia that suggests he is a family man, this initial representation finds itself sharply polarised by his pedophilic fetishizations and the abuse he exerts on Lilja. He subverts the stereotypical ‘Swedish values’ exposing them as a façade through exploiting the prosthetics of image and respectability, much in the same way consumer capitalism is represented throughout.

Moodysson is an outspoken critique of several defining ideological facets of Western national culture, particularly the West’s relationship with capitalism relative to the rest of the world. Paradoxically, the Swedish government’s financial legislation that aids evolving, local cinemas has been an advantage to Moodysson. Many of his low budget films, particularly those from the earlier half of his career, have met with both national and international critical acclaim and have lucratively challenged the American blockbusters they have come up against in Sweden. In spite of this, Moodysoon’s career has developed alongside a perpetually shifting milieu of multinational co-productions across Scandinavia that has mutated through social and technological progression. In addition, Moodysson exploited the commercial success from his early career and channeled it into Swedish and regional cinema. It is important to note that the EU does make a significant investment in film and although Moodysson receives a portion of his funding from EU sources, his relationship with them has been fraught with complications as a result of their globalizing trajectories.

Given the dissonance Moodysson feels towards globalization’s monopoly on people, and drawing from the same rape scenes, if one approaches them from a national perspective, it becomes clear that the abuse is highly personal. If Moodysson’s personal point of view is adopted, Lilja 4-ever may be read as a symbolic national allegory. As opposed to viewing Lilja as an outside entity, one could assume that she represents Sweden and the geo-political tussle between Sweden and the EU. Through this national parable, Moodysson’s Sweden adopts the role of the subjugated party, perpetually at the mercy of globalizing regulations and capital trade sanctions. As Elsaesser states “Clearly, the nation state is renegotiating with the European Union questions of sovereignty and principle of non-interference.”3 This plays into the notion of Moodysson’s national discourse, illustrating Sweden’s susceptibility as an independent nation within an arena of expanding global influence. The reality of global corporate kleptomania and impact establishes a sense of the increasingly unilateral power relationship that Moodysson may seek to express as infringing upon creative direction, an aspect increasingly side-lined in a bid to garner global commercial success. A possible flaw in this interpretation is underscored when accounting for the prosperity the EU has brought to Sweden. In addition, the exploitation of an Eastern female immigrant as a parabolic representation of Western victimization buttresses a further patriarchal sentiment of Western imperialism.

Although Lilja 4-ever frames sex trafficking, a Nordic identity crisis exploring a narrative of post-Soviet labour undermining Western welfare systems may also be present. “As the status of the state as the “good state” has diminished, handing off decision making to transnational entities- from World Trade Organization to debate over NATO membership from Sweden and Finland, to EU-level governance, and through the emergence of multiculturalism- new sites of discussion and social formation have become home to the discourses where subjects fashion relationships between individuality and the social body.”4 From here, Moodysson moves away from the simplified sex-trafficking format which gives way to his desire to provoke a debate concerning the broader implications of globalization in his home nation. On the one hand we have Moodysson attempting to mobilize a transnational network in a bid to fight global sexual exploitation whilst, simultaneously transnationalism continues to sustains the polemical notions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

There is a sense that there was an inevitability associated with Lilja’s demise, not solely as a means of recreating Dangoule Rasaiaite’s death, but as a plot device designed to repatriate her back into her home nation. This ending suggests how Moodysson envisions the solutions to such problems as rooted in individual national spaces. This could be contested on the grounds that, upon their deaths, Lilja and Volodja are seen playing on the rooftops of a building; a liminal and open-ended space behaving as a conduit through which a sense of definition is lost. “Moodysson’s film moves us out of the discourse of defined or defining urban texts or narratives and into the global visual chaos of transformative, potential space.”5

There is perhaps something intrinsically significant in the idea of Lilja 4-ever as a ‘return narrative’. Ironically, by adopting Lilja’s subject position the spectators too are rendered passive. As the theme of religion runs throughout, relayed to us through various symbolic iconographies, Moodysson remedies Lilja’s situation with blind faith, offering no viable solution to these trans-cultural complexities. While Lilja’s repatriation in death could be read as a symbolic message that home is where her emancipation truly rests, simultaneously, an absence of a singular, tangible place on the rooftops renders the space almost rootless, exemplifying how freedom is achieved through severing one’s roots.

In the struggle to locate Moodysson’s film, we return to the same paradox of the co-dependence between the national and transnational. These tensions, however, impart depth and enrich debates concerning both national and transnational cinema. Lilja 4-ever also reinforces the paradox of national cinema as a product of globalization. As Kääpä has noted “Every pattern and strategy of encountering, accommodating, negotiating or resisting globalization can be understood as constituting a new version of the very process of globalization.”6 This notion of national cinemas fighting for definition in a global arena is steeped in irony as this battle becomes a characteristic of globalization itself. The transnational movement that flourished between the Nordic countries during the 1990s behaved as a defence mechanism against outside forces “…the assumption, expressed by filmmakers, producers and policy makers from the mid-90s onwards, is that co-operation across national borders is far easier in the Nordic context.”7 Therefore Lilja’s and her descent into abjection provoke a reaction precisely because she represents the ‘Other’. In this sense, transnationalism, which functions also through exploring connections on a human level, helps to facilitate an ideological binary between the Nordic nations and the post-Soviet states. The film exposes a globally relevant transnational theme that, paradoxically, relies on the dissonance and shock value of unfamiliarity and Other to resonate with real significance.

Conclusion

This national and transnational appeal mimics Moodysson’s own complex position with the Swedish film industry. Through this transnational narrative, it appears as though Moodysson simultaneously underscores a national allegory, cloaked within a sex-trafficking narrative.  Rather than trying to divorce the national and the transnational elements, however, I propose that Moodysson marries the two together. In this sense, Moodysson may intend both the national allegory and the global sexual exploitation narrative to function in unison. The theme of conspicuous consumption, in all its forms, appears to have been one of his primary targets, through which Moodysson also highlights how transnationalism forms a key part of any national formation. Perhaps the concept of nation has never had a fixed definition, founded instead on the notion of unstable and transitory pluralities. We should thus perhaps not seek to plot national and transnational cinemas as aggressive antitheses of one another and instead look at their mutual mediations.

References

1)Torneo, E., 2003. Mood Swing: Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever”. Available online: http://www.indiewire.com/article/mood_swing_lukas_moodyssons_lilya_4-ever (Accessed 21 February 2014).

2) Vaughan, H., 2010. Re-mapping cinema for the twenty-first century: Globalism, borders, and bodies in the films of Lukas Moodysson. Journal of European Popular Culture, 1(2), pp. 109-121.

3) (Elsaesser, 2005: 119)

4) Nestingen, A., 2008. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film and Social Change. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

5) Tench Coxe, B., 2010. Playground-Graveyard: Violence, the Body and Borderline Urban Space in “Lilja 4-Ever”Ulbandus Review, Vol. 13, Violence (2010), pp. 29-40.

6) (Kääpä, 2010).

7) Hjort, M., 2005. Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Hjort, M., 2005. Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Hjort, M., Mackenzie, S., 2000. Cinema and Nation. London: Routledge.

Hjort, M., Petrie, D., 2007. The Cinema of Small Nations. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Nestingen, A., 2008. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film and Social Change. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Nestingen, A., Elkington, T., 2005. Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition. Detroit: Wayne State University.

Tench Coxe, B., 2010. Playground-Graveyard: Violence, the Body and Borderline Urban Space in “Lilja 4-Ever”Ulbandus Review, Vol. 13, Violence (2010), pp. 29-40.

Thomson, C., 2013. Framed Horizons: Student Writing on Nordic Cinema. London: Norvik Press.

Torneo, E., 2003. Mood Swing: Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever”. Available online: http://www.indiewire.com/article/mood_swing_lukas_moodyssons_lilya_4-ever (Accessed 21 February 2014).

Vaughan, H., 2010. Re-mapping cinema for the twenty-first century: Globalism, borders, and bodies in the films of Lukas Moodysson. Journal of European Popular Culture, 1(2), pp. 109-121.

CategoriesIssue 9
Katie Moffat

Kate Moffat is a postgraduate student at Bangor University in North
Wales, where she specializes in globalization and the construction of
national identity within Nordic film culture.