Review: In Jos Stelling's THE GIRL AND DEATH, Beauty Matters

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
Recently I came across an article at salon.com titled David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture by Matt Ashby and Brendan Caroll. In it, they talk about our popular culture so completely immersed in irony and lazy cynicism that it has become a hindrance to move forward in art. 

It's a theme I've been thinking about a lot. I have to admit that I am just as guilty of contributing to creating this environment, though. My articles, over the years, have been inundated with sarcasm and dismissive one-liners. I have lost my way to see beauty as it is when it presents itself. Sentimentality has become my enemy and I incessantly mocked whoever embraced it.

The Girl and Death, winner of 2012 Golden Calf Award (The Netherland's Academy Arward) for Best Picture, written and directed by Jos Stelling (co-written by Bert Rijkelijkhuizen), is one of those rare beauties that makes me humble. At first, the film might seem ridiculously musky and full of unblemished sentimentality that any trigger-happy reviewer wouldn't hesitate to use the eye-roll emoticon after every other sentence. It plays out like overly melodramatic Chekov. By the end of it though, I was genuinely moved by its unabashed, old fashioned tragic love story full of yearning and nostalgia.

An old Russian doctor (Sergey Markovetsky) travels to Germany to visit an old mansion/brothel he was once familiar with. The mansion is shuttered up and abandoned long time ago. From there on, we are walking down the memory lane some 50 years back.

A young, sensitive Russian student Nicolai (Leonid Bichevin) with a book of Pushkin poems sticking out from his tattered tweet jacket pocket, is on his way to Paris to study medicine. But he falls helplessly in love when he sees the vision of loveliness (as old Pushkin puts it), Elise (Sylvia Hoeks) at the grand mansion.

With the help of Mme. Nina (Renata Litvinova), he tries to woo Elise despite many warnings from everyone that she, along with everything else, belongs to the brutish Count (Dieter Hallervorden) who uses the mansion as a whorehouse and a gambling den for his old friends.

Nicolai delays his departure again and again ceremoniously, to get a chance to get a glimpse of Elise and talk with her. He makes an impression with bouquet of white roses and a Pushkin poem. He is forced out by the count and his henchmen. But he comes back after two years. This time, the Count's henchman beats him to a pulp. Elise breaks the Count's grip and runs to the young student, and brings him back to health. Free but penniless and in mounting debt without the Count's help, Elise is trapped and can't leave the mansion with Nicolai. Oh dear.

One can easily see the attraction here: Elise (embodied by Sylvia Hoeks) is a porcelain doll beauty. She's the kind of woman you don't dare to touch because you are afraid to break her.

Three years pass. Nicolai, now successful and almost comically moustachioed, comes back with vengeance in mind. He wins all the money at the card table while doing all the fancy tricks and whatnot. He throws all the money he wins at the count's face. Then he says "a whore will always be a whore!" in poor Elise's face and leaves. The count has a heart attack and dies.

Elise has tuberculosis and is dying but she still waits for Nicolai to come back. Time passes, everyone leaves the mansion. Elise hides and remains in the empty building for years.

But by the end of all this nonsense, I stopped rolling my eyes. However improbable and moth eaten the story is, one can't deny its beauty. It made me put my guard down and won me over. It's even quite refreshing to see something this old fashioned in this day and age.

It's the first time in a long time that a film put me in a position where I have to reassess my attitude toward looking at the world. It doesn't mean I'll be digging into Douglas Sirk melodramas any time soon. But with The Girl and Death, beauty transcends a corny storyline and cheap sentimentality. Stelling shows that beauty still matters.


The Girl and Death opens April 25th in New York at Cinema Village and May 23rd in Los Angeles at Laemmie Music Hall via Shadow Distribution.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musing and opinions of the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com.

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