Released: February 23rd, 2018
Director: Rainer Sarnet
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Cast: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Dieter Laser, Katariina Unt, Taavi Eelmaa, Arvo Kukumägi, Heino Kalm, Meelis Rämmeld
Genre: Art House & International, Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Romance
Film Rating: 15
Review Score: 4.5/5
November, directed by Estonian filmmaker Rainer Sarnet, is a film based on the bestselling novel by Estonian “Rehepapp,” which has been translated into eight languages across the world. The story combines elements of magic, dark humor, and romantic love. The film is set in a pagan Estonian village and the main character of the film is Liina, a young girl working on a farm, who is hopelessly, desperately in love with Hans, a boy from the village. The film combines pagan Estonian mythology with European Christian mythology. Both are looking for a miracle; an ancient force that makes it, so that man has a soul.
I’m not going to attempt to write this and pretend as though I understood every single idea the film was conveying, and I don’t believe that’s the point of it, to begin with. So I’m simply going by the feelings that I had while watching it.
To be honest with you, I find detailed plot synopses boring at the best of times, but it would be far more redundant here than usual, given that the main appeal of November isn’t to the intellect, but to the senses. Sure, there are some loose sub-plots involving witchcraft and revolting peasants, but it’s the visuals and the sound that make this experience such an enchanting two hours. Mart Taniel’s stark black and white cinematography is a thing of bleak yet extravagant beauty; the image sometimes over-exposed and bleached out like a splinter-dream, at other times saturated with intensely deep black, dark forms haloed in white. It’s totally reminiscent of The Witch and another enigmatic black and white movie I adore called The Lighthouse, both directed by rising star Robert Eggers.
There are some sublimely framed long, static shots, detailed close-ups (faces of the excellent cast are especially well-captured amongst the contrasting light and dark) and the treatment of light is mesmerising – moonbeams filtering through the dark pines at the crossroad in the forest; set against the night sky. It’s a work of art, and any frame of this film would work well as a picture on a wall. Sonically, it’s no less formidable – the music a mixture of brooding strings, guitar riffs, and drone-adjacent classical; a sound design you want to bathe in – a cocktail of crunches and crackles. When it boils down to it, this is one of the most beautifully shot and well-made films I have ever had the twisted pleasure of watching.
If you’re actively looking for it, there’s narrative coherence of a sort; it essentially boils down to a classic love triangle and the sweet pain of unrequited love. My lack of knowledge of the source material, a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, and general unfamiliarity with Estonian folklore mean that the finer points of what the movie is trying to achieve pass me by, although the broad humour lands – it’s a surprisingly funny film. Patrician rule (foreign invaders, represented by the German baron and his daughter), the absurdity of nationalism and of organized religion all come in the firing line – Christianity in particular, which so easily gives way to older, more strongly held pagan beliefs – why waste communion wafers on the body when you can regurgitate them into surefire Christ bullets? Greed is the prevailing theme, everyone steals from everyone else and more is never enough.
I was expecting bleak folk-horror but it’s not really that at all, it’s more of a tilted, dark fairy tale that commits to its unique brand of wandering surrealism from the outset and never becomes any less bizarre as it goes on. The divide between the living and the dead is immaterial, and muck vies with magic to claim the land and the souls of its inhabitants. This is a film that has opened my eyes to a whole new style of film-making, and I’m all here for it.
Oh, and there’s a jaw-dropping opening scene involving a cow that has to be seen to be believed. November is a visual feast; it’s a cinematic experience; forgoing a real narrative thread that’s front and center in favour of being an ambiguous mood piece. It’s an immersive film that hooks you in from the first few frames, even if you’re not entirely sure what’s going on – there’s something here to be completely entranced by throughout all of November.
“Unbelievable stories, they’re so enchanting,” states one character, and that one line of dialogue sums up the movie perfectly. November is just that. Enchanting, from beginning to end. A work of modern filmmaking that transcends what film is about.
Review by Jack Merry