Thursday, April 24, 2014

Old-fashioned Russian fun and games, from a Dutchman: Jos Stelling's THE GIRL AND DEATH

There's something (quite a lot, actually) decidedly old-fashioned and operatic about THE GIRL AND DEATH, Dutch director and co-writer Jos Stelling's attempt to give us a period tale involving first love between a young medical student and a tubercular courtesan, the former on his way between Russia and Paris to study, the latter under the thumb of the elderly count who pays for her quarters in the slightly decaying hotel in Germany where the young man arrives to stay the night on his journey.

Mr. Stelling (shown at right) also co-wrote the film (along with Bert Rijkelijkhuizen), and the two of them clearly perceive this as a tale of a first love that, sadly, cannot be. As filmmaker, Stelling has lavished his movie with some gauzy, graceful cinematography (by Goert Giltay) that lingers over everything from the hero and heroine's beautiful faces to the accoutrements of the hotel and the Count's ugly countenance. As writers, the pair clearly decided to tell their story more visually than with dialog. Scene by scene, this is a film remarkably dialog-free (or with very limited use of conversation). This can have its charms, but here, I think, you'd really rather have the lovers talk a bit more and consequently make better decisions. Ah, but that's not the way first love works, right?

The story, bookended by an old man on a train (Sergey Makovetskiy, above) who finally arrives at a cemetery (shown at bottom) near the now-deserted hotel and then... remembers his youth. We meet him again at the end of the film to wrap things up. In between, this lengthy 127-minute movie devotes itself to his story, which is simplicity incarnate: Boy meets girl, boy can't have her, much tsuris ensues -- "I can't." "You must!" "No!" "Yes!" and so on, until around the halfway mark, when it's a few years later, and our young man, returned to the hotel again, has grown a "somewhat" mustache and goatee (in order to age him a bit, no doubt).

The leads are played by attractive performers -- Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (below) and Russian actor Leonid Bichevin (above). Both are as good as they're allowed to be. The supporting cast is fine, too, with much of the acting falling pleasantly enough between realism and silent film style -- which, in a movie that offers as sparse dialog as this one does, seems perfectly understandable.

Both intimations and actualizations of death haunt the film. The palette here is drained of a certain amount of color, and there is one scene (below) of a card game by candlelight and in costumes that might just bring to mind Barry Lyndon.

The lovers' story is constantly up and down, off and on, with about enough actual content to fill perhaps one full hour. And that is the film's biggest problem, as it runs on for over two. If you taste is for beautiful photography coupled to Russian moodiness and depression, however, The Girl and Death could be your cup (well, in this case a samovar) of tea.

The movie opens tomorrow, Friday, April 25, in New York City at the Cinema Village. It will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 on May 23, and  I expect it will appear on DVD and/or streaming/VOD eventually.

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