The Girl and Death: Film Review

Jos Stelling Films


Atmosphere and nostalgia trump all in Pushkin-loving romance.

Dutch filmmaker Jos Stelling offers a very Russian tale of doomed love.

The regret-soaked tale of a man who could fight wealth and power for love but couldn't beat fate, Jos Stelling's The Girl and Death acknowledges from the start that things are not going to end well. Pretty in a decaying-opulence sort of way and well cast, the film is more superficial than its nods to highbrow culture would suggest, but could win a few hearts at the art house in a limited stateside run.

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Leonid Bichevin plays Nicolai, a poetry-loving student traveling from Moscow to Paris for med school in the early 20th century. Stopping along the way in a German hotel that evidently doubles as a whorehouse, he falls immediately for Elise (Sylvia Hoeks). But before he can even speak to her, a fellow Russian named Nina (Renata Litvinova) shoos him off: This girl is not for you, she insists. Not only is Elise the pampered property of a self-styled Count (Dieter Hallervorden) who owns the hotel and everything else around here; she was so abused as a child that she learned to hate and mistrust men.

Perhaps Nina should have stopped before informing Nicolai that Elise "has never known love," because now there's no way he's leaving without meeting her. Realizing he's not yet capable of extracting her from this gilded cage, he ends their brief encounter with a promise to return once he's a doctor.

Thus begins a series of "three years later"-style episodes during which the couple's bond grows stronger while outside machinations and Elise's failing health keep them from remaining together. Stelling's quietly emotional film benefits from a few sequences of nearly dialogue-free storytelling and from a blanket of solo-piano Chopin compositions that confer on Elise some of the depth the script fails to give her. The young actors do a fine job of conjuring a love based on almost nothing more than her lovely face and his gentle but passionate gaze, and Stelling (with co-writer Bert Rijkelijkhuizen) isn't shy about employing his moustache-twirling Count whenever they have an opportunity to move beyond the infatuation phase.

Gert Brinkers' production design and Goert Giltay's photography go a long way toward making this story feel bigger than it is. Though the film's decades-later framing device is a cliche, their work transforms it into something haunting.

Production Company: Jos Stelling Films

Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Sylvia Hoeks, Sergey Makovetskiy, Renata Litvinova, Dieter Hallervorden

Director: Jos Stelling

Screenwriters: Jos Stelling, Bert Rijkelijkhuizen

Producers: Jos Stelling, Anton Kramer

Director of photography: Goert Giltay

Production designer: Gert Brinkers

Music: Bart van de Lisdonk

Costume designer: Andrea Schein

Editor: Bert Rijkelijkhuizen

No rating, 127 minutes