What’s on the menu for ‘November’:
With apologies to Monty Python: And now for something completely different. If you’re looking for a film that stands apart from anything you’ve seen before, a unique vision artfully expressed, then look no further than November.
Here’s the official synopsis, which scans as weird but fails to capture just how deeply, profoundly weird it really is:
In this tale of love and survival in 19th century Estonia, peasant girl Liina (Rea Lest) longs for village boy Hans (Jörgen Liik), but Hans is inexplicably infatuated by the visiting German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) that possesses all that he longs for. For Liina, winning Hans’ requited love proves incredibly complicated in this dark, harsh landscape where spirits, werewolves, plagues, and the devil himself converge, where thievery is rampant, and where souls are highly regarded, but come quite cheap. With alluring black and white cinematography, Rainer Sarnet vividly captures these motley lives as they toil to exist, but must ask if existence is worth anything if it lacks a soul?
November is, at its core, a fairy tale. But it’s not the kind you’d ever want to read to your kids at bedtime. It goes far beyond the original darkness of the Brothers Grimm, weaving together bits of traditional Estonian folklore with Freudian imagery, Christian allegories, pandemic apocalypse, werewolves, witches, farts, and a poetic snowman (yes, really). Did we already mention it’s weird?
November is directed with endlessly inventive flair by Rainer Sarnet, who also adapted the screenplay from a novel by Andrus Kivirähk. It marks the first co-production between Estonia, the Netherlands, and Poland. It was featured in a number of festivals last year, including Tribeca in New York, the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, and the Chicago International Film Festival. It officially opens in the U.S. in New York City on February 23rd, and in Los Angeles on March 2nd.
Best scene (spoilery):
The aforementioned poetic snowman is describing some of the beautiful and moving scenes he has witnessed in his previous watery form, observing from lakes, rivers, and streams. We see two powder-wigged lovers on a gondola, traversing what is described as the “canals of Venice,” but looks nothing like it. The man proclaims eternal love to the woman, presenting her with a parting gift, as he must soon leave – forever. She refuses the gift, and drops it in the canal. The camera tilts down and under the gondola, where we see the snowman’s two listeners actually watching what he’s describing as though underwater. It’s a bit hard to properly describe, but it is breathtaking.
The time period of the film is supposed to be 19th century rural Estonia, but there are anachronistic flourishes: a talking bicycle seat, for example (yes, really). These really cannot qualify as either blunder or gaff. Sarnet is deploying them intentionally.
November wastes no time establishing that this will not be your run-of-the-mill film, when a strange mechanical device with a broom for a tail and a large animal skull for a head rolls into frame on three metal legs. This is a kratt, which villagers create out of whatever objects and materials are at hand, then animate by selling their soul to the devil in exchange for a soul for their kratt. The debt is collected when the kratt is destroyed. This first kratt – we will meet several others – steals one farmer’s cow, wrapping it in chains and helicoptoring it away before demanding “give me work!” of its master. Then it squirts something dark and viscous in the master’s eye. You know, the usual kratt stuff.
Told as a string of eerie, dreamlike vignettes – captured by the beautiful black and white cinematography of Mart Taniel – the story emerges of a village beset by plague, which appears in the form of a woman. Or a pig. Or a goat. One method of avoiding the plague: take off your pants and wear them on your head, which will fool the plague into thinking you have two asses and move on.
The daily lives of the villagers are beautifully detailed: their dwellings have comically low ceilings, rough clothing, natural light, the utensils and tools they use are wonderfully specific, and there are liberal helpings of humor, much of it hilariously coarse. People are able to visit and converse with dead friends and family, simply by visiting the cemetery at night and placing a lit candle on their grave. They walk in pure white uniforms, faces white, eyes coal black. It’s creepy and beautiful at the same time. The main story thread, that of the commoner smitten with a beautiful baroness, ignoring the fellow commoner who loves him, takes a decided Gift of the Magi turn at the end – but with far more tragic consequences.
November is impossible to categorize. It has elements of supernatural, fantasy, and horror genres, the moral authority of a classic fairy tale, the lived-in look and feel of a Merchant and Ivory period drama. It’s beautifully acted, by a mixed collection of veteran European talent, newbies, and Estonian amateurs. One thing it is not: predictable. It’s jaw-droppingly inventive cinema, and any true film aficionado needs to experience its spell.
We should also pay close attention to whatever Rainer Sarnet turns his attention to next. He is a true visionary.
Connect with ‘November’:
November begins a limited run in U.S. theaters starting tomorrow (February 23rd, 2018) in New York City, and in Los Angeles a few days later, on March 2nd. There is currently no word of wider release, or of upcoming VOD or streaming services dates.
EFFECTS (1-5): 4
SCORE (1-5): 5
OVERALL (1-5): 4
YEAR OF RELEASE: 2017
STUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories
MPAA RATING: UR (currently)
LENGTH: 115 mins.
DVD? (Y/N): N (not yet)
BLU-RAY? (Y/N): N (not yet)
NETFLIX? (Y/N): N (not yet)
WIDESCREEN? (Y/N) Y
IN THEATERS? (Y/N) Y, as of XXX 2018 (US)
STREAMING DIGITAL/VOD? (Y/N) N (not yet)