Two of film’s mustiest tropes are stitched together in Jos Stelling’s period melodrama The Girl and Death: A man falls in love with a prostitute while she wastes away of tuberculosis. As Baz Luhrmann proved with Moulin Rouge!, such an unoriginal premise need not doom a project to redundancy.
But this staid, insipid Dutch production (in German, French, and Russian) is about as fresh and enticing as Miss Havisham’s yellowed nightie.
Medical student Nicolai (Leonid Bichevin) arrives in Paris from Moscow intending to improve his French and learn all he can about the human body. His one-night stop at a hotel with a cathouse petite upstairs turns into an indefinite stay after befriending scarred sex worker Nina (Renata Litvinova), then beholding her abused colleague Elise (Sylvia Hoeks).
As these things go, it’s obsession at first sight and eternal, never-fading love after a minute-long conversation. But Elise has a powerful older benefactor (Dieter Hallervorden), so the young lovers conduct their sporadic courtship through poetry. A 19th-century woman with the ability to read could probably find a safer line of work than hooking, especially when she harbors a virulent hatred of men, as Elise supposedly does. (She makes an exception for soppy Nicolai.)
But romanticizing its female characters’ passive victimhood is one of this film’s dubious charms, as is Stelling’s languidly paced, murkily lit, largely dialogue-free style. It’s time to return this old painting to the attic.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 23, 2014