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LILLIAN

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by Andreas Horvath

grade: 8

Inspired by a story that really happened in the 1920s, that of a young Russian girl – Lillian Alling, in fact – who attempted to return to Russia on foot directly from New York, Lillian – directed by Andreas Horvath and produced by Ulrich Seidl – is actually a magnetic, painful, but also exciting and fascinating film, which perfectly keeps the audience’s attention high from beginning to end. At the Cannes Film Festival 2019, as part of the Directors’ Fortnight.

Coast to coast and beyond

Straight from the Cannes Film Festival 2019 – section Quinzaine des Réalisateurs – a true gem of contemporary Austrian cinema. We are talking about Lillian, directed by Andreas Horvath and produced by Ulrich Seidl, about which, unfortunately, not much has been told so far, despite its undoubted artistic quality.

But what, specifically, is Lillian about? Inspired by a story that really happened in the 1920s, when a young Russian girl – Lillian Alling, in fact – attempted to return to Russia on foot directly from New York, this newest feature film by Andreas Horvath is effectively a magnetic, painful, but also exciting and fascinating film, perfectly capable of keeping the audience’s attention high from beginning to end, with a successful crescendo of suspense as the finale approaches.

Set, then, in the present day, the film begins precisely at the moment when the young and beautiful Lillian (played by an excellent Patrycja Planik) is sent away from a job interview, since her residence permit has expired. What to do, then, but attempt to return to Russia? The only way to get back there without money is to undertake a long journey on foot.

Andreas Horvath, for his part, in staging this singular Herzog-like adventure, has immediately opted for a skilful minimalist mise en scene, in which, necessarily, the dialogues are very limited (the protagonist, for her part, does not speak English at all) and the focus is left to the images, noises and diegetic voices that, all together, create an evocative fresco of the contemporary United States. And so, through the wanderings of the young protagonist, we immediately become part of this great and varied nation, with its crowded cities, its semi-abandoned suburbs and, last but not least, its immense green fields and rocks.

Similarly, Andreas Horvath has also managed, with short but effective shots, to characterise the locals, the local shopkeepers and the inhabitants, now wary, now extremely polite and caring, as happens, for example, when a lady helps the young Lillian, who is completely exhausted and thirsty, by offering her a drink in her shop.

And then, as a further protagonist of the story, there is the landscape. A landscape, this one, now hostile, now incredibly welcoming. A landscape with which Lillian seems to be immediately at ease, despite its immense vastness and despite its dangers. A landscape within which, even if one doesn’t have money, one always finds, in one way or another, a way to survive.

There are several thrilling moments in Lillian. Moments in which, through the right music, through shots of the sky growing darker and darker, or through images of creepy vultures, the director lets us foreshadow something tragic that could happen at any moment. Or maybe not?

Lillian, then, becomes more and more harsh, more and more heartbreaking and devastating as the story progresses. Witnesses to this are images of old dolls whose heads are all that is left, chosen by the protagonist as travelling companions (similarly to what happened in Cast Away, directed by Robert Zemeckis in 2000, when Tom Hanks builds his imaginary friend Wilson), and legs now covered in hair, given the impossibility of finding a place to take care of oneself.

An extreme feature film, then, Lillian. A feature film in which, along with a faint hope and totally contemplative scenes, there are still moments of great consternation, in a crescendo of emotions that is very difficult to create when dealing with stories of this kind. And yet, Andreas Horvath has fully succeeded. And for his part, Ulrich Seidl immediately realised how impressive such a work would be. So much so that he decided to produce it. His name, after all, is always a guarantee.

Original title: Lillian
Directed by: Andreas Horvath
Country/year: Austria / 2019
Running time: 130’
Genre: biographical, drama
Cast: Patrycja Planik
Screenplay: Andreas Horvath
Cinematography: Andreas Horvath
Produced by: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH

Info: the page of Lillian on iMDb; the page of Lillian on the website of the Austrian Film Commission