With a title as stark and gloomy as "The Girl and Death," it's no surprise that sitting through much of this polished period drama evokes watching paint dry. But when said paint finally dries, at about the movie's three-quarter mark, what emerges is a hypnotic, strangely wistful and affecting portrait.
This mournful saga opens after World War II as Russian doctor Nicolai (Sergey Makovetsky) travels to Germany to revisit his haunting past. The story then flashes back to the late 1800s as a young, Paris-bound Nicolai (Leonid Bichevin) stops outside Leipzig to spend a night at a secluded hotel, which, he discovers, doubles as a high-class brothel.
The handsome doctor-to-be decides to stay awhile when he becomes infatuated with Elise (Sylvia Hoeks), a sad beauty who's being kept by a wealthy, much older, fear-inspiring Count (Dieter Hallervorden). Against the advice of fellow Russian Nina, a prostitute and quasi-madam, Nicolai pursues the elusive Elise who, it will slowly be revealed, has tuberculosis. ("Camille," anyone?)
Nicolai and Elise's relationship — largely thwarted, occasionally passionate, always a bit operatic — spans the better part of a decade as Nicolai sporadically returns to the eerie hotel. Meanwhile, Elise's illness worsens (that she'd survive so long seems dubious) and Nicolai's obsession with her deepens and darkens.
It's no spoiler to report a happily-ever-after is not in store. But, in the end, when the older Nicolai we met at the start arrives back at the now-abandoned hotel and reconnects — in his own cinematic way — with Elise, it makes for a satisfying bookend.
The script by director Jos Stelling and Bert Rijkelijkhuizen doesn't rely on a great deal of dialogue to tell this muted, at times absurdist tale. But sumptuous visuals, vivid emotional beats and memorable turns by Bichevin and Hoeks effectively compensate for the verbal sparseness.
"The Girl and Death."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. In French, Russian and German with English subtitles.