A young Russian doctor falls madly in love with a beautiful, consumptive courtesan in vet Dutch helmer Jos Stelling’s opulent 19th-century period piece “The Girl and Death.” This lugubrious, somewhat ponderous version of “Camille” opens in old age and decay and flashes back to a lushly operatic, unabashedly romantic past, tinged with nostalgia and regret and hemmed in with false pride and corruption. But the film’s emotional center rings coldly hollow, its star-crossed lovers coming off more like projected figures than flesh-and-blood players. Lyrically lensed and lavishly costumed, Stelling’s elegant curio seems unlikely to extend its limited Stateside theatrical run.
“Girl” transpires almost exclusively in an eerie German hotel frequented by sickly old men and comely young whores where Nicolai (Leonid Bichevin) stops on his way to study medicine in Paris. There he meets Elise (Sylvia Hoeks), a pale fragile beauty kept by a decadent elderly count (Dieter Hallervorden) who owns the hotel and rules over the local environs with the aid of brutal henchman Bruno (Maxim Kowalewski).
At first Nicolai only communicates with Elise through the intermediary of Nina (Renata Litvinova), a fellow Russian acting as Elise’s keeper and confidante. Neither of the leads evinces much intelligence or personality: Nicolai exudes impatient impetuosity and stunned infatuation while Elise incarnates delicate, abused innocence (the count beats her when not indulging her shopping for expensive gowns and trinkets). Meanwhile, go-between Nina simmers with enigmatic intrigues, conspiratorially hinting of hidden dangers and clandestine trysts.
As time passes, Nicolai revisits the hotel in several reprises, the hotel and its inhabitants more dissolute and decayed with each go-round. A volume of Pushkin in French, a bouquet of white roses and nocturnes by Chopin form leitmotifs in a romance seemingly stitched together from brief snatches of conversation and stiff, hesitant embraces. Nicolai’s attempts to carry off his genteelly coughing damsel are foiled in turn by fear, escalating violence and overweening pride until he storms off in a melodramatic huff, only to return an old man (now thesped by Sergey Makovetsky), who, having lost the Girl, instead courts Death.
Production values are ace. Bart van de Lisdonk’s production design and Andrea Schein’s sumptuous costumes, through Goert Giltay’s lens, successfully merge opulence and decay.