In 1926, Lillian Alling, a Russian citizen who lived in New York, decided she would walk back to her country through the Bering Straights. Her adventures over two years of deambulation, are filmed by Austrian director Andreas Horvath, in a two hour long tale of her American and Canadian crossing, Lilian. The Polish actress, Patricia Planik does not utter a word and yet is so lively. One understands her strange flight and is scared for her all along. It is a beautiful tale of survival in a world without money, beds, nor food. And a superior camerawork by the director himself.
The real Lillian had saved money for the trip and stopped many times on the way to work and keep walking. She was even arrested by a nice Canadian trooper who kept her in a warm prison in Oatchalla, near Vancouver, during the hard winter months. Her travels took her on a 8000 mile journey from Buffalo to the Niagara Falls, Winnipeg, British Columbia and Telegraph Creek. She was last seen in Tellen, Alaska and noone knows if she made it back to Russia?
She is the object of fascination in Canada and books have been written about her as well as an opera composed by John Estacio was performed in Vancouver. The particularity of the film, the first long feature by Horvath, is that all parts are played by actual people, found on the way. The film was shot in seven sequences of two weeks each. The director went on the trip with the actress and three technicians. From February to December, they drove from New York to Anchorage. He included many scenes that just happened while they were travelling and it feels in the film. Lillian wanders in a very natural way and seems to always encounter a little food (at an autochtone demonstration camp), a few clothes in laudromats, and shelter in empty houses.
When she is arrested for walking in the middle of nowhere, the local sherif drives her to the limit of the county. He is acted by the real sherif. Patricia Planik identified herself strongly with Lillian and this also shows in the movie. When she appears with a feather holding her hair, or when she heats snow in a pan to drink hot water in the forest. There is a wild aspect to her character which is very attractive and one is moved by her useless heroism.
A graduate in photography from Lodz University, Patricia Planik has worked in the theater in Poznan and Warsaw. Andreas Horvath was born in Salzburg in 1968, published black and white photography books on Yakoutie, Siberia, and rural America. His talent here, besides the beautiful photography, is to have intertwined radio broadcasts and daily conversations between local people. A lady in a thrift shop talks endlessly with her girlfriend on the phone while Lillian shoplifts boots. The local radio gives tedious weather forecasts and golf results. All the dialogues are stupid and unimportant and yet help build the unique atmosphere of the film.
What is important, is Lillian’s flight in a cornfield when a truck driver tries to assault her, the kindness of some shop owners who try to give her drinks, and again, she flies. The description of Middle America is very accurate and maybe, only a foreigner like Horvath, could have achieved such a brilliant fresco of this country.
The film ends in Russia with Tchouktche speaking whales fishermen. It is a most unusual and fascinating movie, maybe fifteen minutes too long? But it is also the revelation of two unique talents, Andreas Horvath and Patricia Planik.
Lillian opens on December 11 in France.
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