Cannes 2019 review: Lillian (Andreas Horvath)

Lillian (Patrycja Planik) is the main character in Andreas Horvath’s impressive first work of fiction, reenacting the story of a Russian immigrant who chose to walk across the USA in order to return to her homeland. She went from New York to the ends of Alaska, not unlike a salmon swimming upstream, as is hinted to us by the only scene carrying some symbolic significance (the fact that the scene ends with the salmon being eaten by Lillian gives it an actual purpose inside the character’s journey, thus keeping it from being purely symbolic and out of touch with the rest of the movie). Prior to Lillian, Andreas Horvath directed several documentaries, and despite the shift to fiction this style is still clearly present here. Horvath documents rather than dramatizes Lillian’s long walk from one end of the country to the other. Storytelling and pathos are scarce, and the same goes for the dialogue as the main character’s only interactions are with the CCTV cameras that see her, the radio programs she overhears, and the billboards she reads on the side of the road.

There is one exception, when a county sheriff drives Lillian for a very short ride and gives her his coat for the upcoming winter. He labels her as a ‘walker’, a term which has become commonly used in zombie movies and TV shows. Lillian is very much alive, but the whole world around her is shown by Horvath as dead; a land truly as abandoned and hostile for Lillian as the ones pictured in post-apocalyptic tales. This inversion of the post-apocalyptic pattern (a living walker wanders in a dead world and uses its commodities while trying to avoid its inhabitants) is one of the powerful stances taken by Horvath which make Lillian such a startling film. Here the United States is not to be rescued, or rebuilt, but fled from.

Lillian’s journey through this country includes a handful of frightening incidents, when her frailty is suddenly and violently exposed by adverse events such as a sudden hailstorm, the irruption of a potential rapist, or having to go through a desert area. Horvath creates great anguish in such scenes, but he does not give them more importance than other more common ordeals. Instead he does the opposite: give the same weight to every moment of Lillian’s walk, whether she is fine or endangered, stealing or bleeding, because all these circumstances have the same intensity from the character’s point of view. The same goes for the many changes of scenery and season. Lillian’s venture lasts several months, from one winter to the next one, and across an entire continent where all types of landscapes coexist. Like Lillian’s will and feet when it comes to keeping on going, Horvath’s eye never gets tired of discovering these new places and weather conditions, and of showing them to us in all their natural splendor. Lillian is two hours long, but here every minute becomes a feast for our eyes and a source of strong emotions, through the sole power of Horvath’s shots and editing. His movie is a tour de force, which keeps us in awe from beginning to end even though its premise might seem minimalist.