Film review

July 20, 2013

'The Girl and Death' ... from Russia with love

By J.P. Devine
Correspondent

"The past is never dead. It's not even past." -- William Faulkner.

Russia after World War II. An old man, a doctor, perhaps in his early 70s, buys some flowers and boards a train somewhere in Russia. On his long journey, he slumbers and dreams. At one point, he is awakened by German passport officers and asked for his papers. They are returned, but when he reaches his destination -- an old town somewhere in Germany -- he leaves them on the seat beside him, and we know that he has no plans to return.

And the story of love, betrayal and death begins.

In the village, he comes to a decaying building, boarded up and deserted. It has all the crumbling features of a woman out of a Chekov story, a woman lost in time for whom the past has been such a heavy burden that nothing in the present can restore her beauty. Still there is something here, a presence, dark and wet, but unrelenting.

There clearly is something here that our doctor has come to find, perhaps to dig up and embrace.

He will enter the building, roam its dusty halls. He has left something here, someone.

Director-writer Jos Sterling ("The Illusionist") is preparing for us a story and starts again, 50 years in the past.

Out of a cold dark rain, down a muddy road comes a young Russian, Nicolai (Leonid Bichevin), a student on his way from Moscow to Paris to study the art of medicine. The road leads up to the gates of a brightly lit building.

Inside, Nicolai discovers what appears to be a privately owned brothel and sanatorium. An aging bellboy opens the door and leads him to the front desk. Here a room clerk with a somber, almost ghostly visage stands and stares, his eyes are those of a man who has seen unspeakable horror and even participated in it.

Nicolai is given a room, and his handful of cash is accepted. As the bellboy takes him to the stairs, Nicolai scans the occupants of the musty grand room. There are girls in various states of undress and a handful of very old ailing men, some in wheelchairs, being fed, tended to. It's clearly a brothel for the soon-to-be-departed, but not on a grand scale.

All of this seems to be leading into a ghost story, something written perhaps by Nikolai Gogol and Dostoevsky.

Eventually, at the very end, there will be ghosts, of the long dead, and of the heart. But here and now, in this room, Nicolai will meet Elise (Sylvia Hoeks), skin as pale as water, golden hair and haunted eyes. He is warned that she belongs to a wealthy and elderly baron, who uses this old estate as a private gambling den and brothel for his friends.

Nicolai, taken by her beauty, extends his stay and despite the warnings of the house madam, Nina, (a startling Renata Litvinova) falls hopelessly in love.

The course of true love, as Shakespeare warned us, never does run smoothly; and with Nicolai and Elise, the course runs from perilous to disastrous. The baron is evil and dangerous, and twice, over a period of three years, Nicolai returns and fails to win Elise's freedom.

Eventually, he discovers that his Elise is a prisoner of a haunted past, bound by invisible chains. He will be back, years later, rich and successful, for a final act of revenge. It will be an ugly return.

In fact, throughout the film, Stelling's reputation is clearly deserved. "The Girl and Death," written by Stelling and Bert Rijkelijkhuizen, is a lyrical poem of the unseen, a dark valentine, sent from the past and opened for us to see in the very final moments. Cinematographer Goert Giltay is an artist at work throughout.

Sylvia Hoeks is Elise from moment one to the burst of wind in the end, an enchanting, magical actor.

Bichevin as the young Nicolai is superb, shadowed only by Sergey Makovetskly's older Doctor Nicolai.

All of the players are superb, with one brilliant exception: Svetlana Svetichnaya, as the aging, dying Nina, the once young madam. In a film where the story is told and enhanced by eyes, Svetlana's take it to the level of literature.

In an age of big, fast moving films, "Girl" will seem, at times, slow moving, especially in the early scenes; but it is tale well told, and with love.

The rewards are many.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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