NOVEMBER (2017)

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In a poor Estonian village, a group of peasants use magic and folk remedies to survive the winter, and a young woman tries to get a young man to love her...
5 out of 5 stars

Even if you’re a folklore ‘freak’ (as I am) and have read the novel it’s inspired by (which I haven’t), chances are that Rainer Sarnet’s November will still offer plenty of surprises, pleasant and otherwise. It’s a beguiling film that manages to seamlessly stitch together supernatural suspense, folk-horror, Gothic romance, coming-of-age drama, love story, comedy, and pathos. What’s more, it looks gorgeous doing it.

It’s already cleaned-up on the festival circuit and garnered instant cult status, so this new Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment has an audience ready and waiting for what is, by far, the best Estonian fairy tale film I’ve seen…

A romanticised reimagining of the period following the Great Northern War provides its backdrop. A time when Estonia fell under the bureaucratic control of German nobility who tried their hardest to reintroduce feudalism and serfdom whilst assimilating the local culture. But in November, superstition superimposes itself on the everyday world.

There’s definitely something a bit Edgar Allan Poe going on up at the big mansion. The Baron (Dieter Laser) lives in a grand house falling into decrepitude, much like the old bed-ridden Baroness herself, whom we only briefly see when the maid helps herself to the luxurious underwear and dresses that now languish, unused, in her trunk. The maid, Louise (Katariina Unt) rescues these from the moths and sells them on to the blossoming peasant girl, Liina (Rea Lest), who’s prepared to pilfer from her family’s secret horde of silver to buy finery that can showcase her fresh womanly charms.

She hopes to impress Hans (Jörgen Liik), a local farm boy experiencing the first pangs of adolescent infatuation. Though unfortunately for young Liina, Hans has been enchanted by the refined beauty of the Baron’s mysterious daughter (fashion model Jette Loona Hermanis, in her debut). Goth guys will be insanely envious of Hans, as he vies for the attention of these two beautiful Gothic heroines. One’s a tragically unobtainable super-pale somnambulist suffering an unnamed affliction linked to the phases of the moon; the other a passionate force of nature who has mastered the secrets of lycanthropy. I mean, what a choice! This largely unrequited love triangle is the central narrative that all the weirdly wonderful events in this startlingly original, yet timeless, story revolve around.

If this was a Roger Cormen or Hammer film we’d see the tale unfold in saturated Technicolor from the perspective of the mansion and its residents. But no, here we follow the grimy lives and loves of the tenant peasants in the nearby small-holdings and settlements, where superstition and ‘the old ways’ still hold sway. Shot in stunning monochrome by cinematographer Mart Taniel for which he’s picked up a handful of prestigious awards including the American Society of Cinematographers Spotlight Award.

In a wintery fairy tale world, we accept November’s unapologetic notion that folklore is real. For example, it’s a tradition throughout Catholic culture that the ancestors are honoured on one special night known as All Souls’ Day to commemorate ‘All the Faithful Departed’. This is held early in November, hence the title. There’s the widely celebrated Halloween, there’s Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival and, in many European cultures, an all-night candle-lit vigil is held in cemeteries. In Estonia—well, in the semi-mythic version we visit here—the dead really do come back to visit their families, have dinner with them… and take a sauna. Sometimes in the form of giant chickens. I did warn you: it’s wonderfully weird.

It’s established early on that whilst we may have thought a dour East-European art-movie was about to unfold, we’re actually in for something quite different. We meet our first Kratt before any of the other players in the pre-title sequence and, apart from the murderous automaton that self-assembles from power tools in Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990), I don’t think we’ve met anything quite like it before on the silver screen.

A Kratt is a being already established in Estonian folklore, constructed with whatever is to hand, usually some agricultural tools along with something to hold them together; straw, mud or sometimes snow. This rustic rough-and-ready contraption can then be puppeteered with a soul borrowed from the devil, in lieu of the Kratt-maker’s own. The Kratt-creature will then obey its creator’s every command, but if not kept continuously busy, will just as readily turn on them. Far from becoming inhuman monsters, here the Kratts develop their own characters, provide some of the film’s dark humour and even draw the audience’s sympathy. (I believe the correct pluralisation should be ‘kratid’.)

Weird as it may be, November is never gratuitously so, and almost every frame overflows with hauntingly beautiful and original imagery. It reminds me of many precursors, and yet it’s unlike any of them. Clearly, there are nods to German expressionist cinema, not least such classics as The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Nosferatu—both F.W Murnau’s 1922 version and Werner Herzog’s distinctive 1979 remake. It owes a great debt to the films of Jean Cocteau, particularly his beautiful fairy tale film La Belle et la Bette (1946), and would make a perfect double-bill with Vincent Ward’s Vigil (1984).

At times it feels like a ponderously poetic Tarkovsky classic, like Mirror (1975), which is also rich in folkloric symbolism. Or maybe something by Bergman? Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s influence is tangible, especially his fascination with folklore, showcased in Little Otik (2000), and his pioneering use of tools and everyday objects in stop-frame animation. Surely, he too was aware of the Kratt’s folklore roots and the ones we meet in November, though digitally composited, could well have walked away from one of his early surrealistic shorts.

Having said that, films this distinctively different are rare indeed. It’s beautifully shot in textured monochrome where whites are often so bright that details become delineated and take on an illustrative, almost graphic quality. These ethereal scenes contrast beautifully in tone with others shot in low light that create velvety darkness. Often starkly lit by a single source (standing in for silvery moonlight) that may pick-out a small lone figure at a snowy crossroads or the curve of a bare shoulder near a window at night. The visual approach falls nicely in line with contemporary East European aesthetics, exemplified in work by trend-setting photographer Andrzej Dragan. The church scene, where peasants save their communion wafers to make bullets, could easily feature in one of the promo videos he’s recently directed for Polish Black-Metal band Behemoth.

November brilliantly builds its own cohesive mythos over the first act, without really giving any clues as to where it’ll take us next. I was totally engrossed for the first 45-minutes and then unexpectedly moved by something deceptively simple. It was a subtle moment that took my breath away and I had to sit back and take stock. It didn’t take me long to realise the effect had been the culmination of being unquestioningly absorbed into this magical world by deeply engaging acting and impeccable use of sound cues. I have to give a shout-out to composer Michal Jacaszek for his superlative work here, and also an evocative and highly relevant use of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”.

The film does rely on strong performances to maintain the suspension of disbelief and the cast repeatedly hit the mark throughout, even when the roles call for delicate subtlety one moment with interruptions of broad humour the next. Most are little known outside of Polish and Estonian film or television, but there is a good mix of veteran talent opposite a set of impressive newcomers.

Genre fans will know Dieter Laser as Dr Heiter in The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2011) and Final Sequence (2015), but he’s been acting since the late 1960s and won a German Film Award for ‘Best Actor’ in the title role of John Glueckstadt (1974). Although it’s a supporting role, he plays November’s Baron with a fine balance of power and poignancy, revealing the character’s deep dignity, and a humanity that he’s not credited for by many of the bitter locals who work the land of his crumbling estate. Yes, there’s also a lighter campiness and he has a fabulous line in sequinned jackets that Liberace would covet!

Katariina Unt has had a well-respected and prolific stage career, first for the Tailin Theatre Company in the 1990s and then at the national Estonian Theatre. She’s become gradually more interested in screen roles and her strong-willed, somewhat mercenary maid in November is her seventh appearance for writer-director Rainer Sarnet.

Taavi Eelmaa plays her male counterpart at the mansion, the bolshie butler and groundsman, Ints. They had first worked together in Ruudi (2016) and both appeared in Rainer Sarnets’s The Idiot (2011). Of the more established cast members, quite a few seem to have already worked together and one gets the impression that the Estonian acting pond may be small but evidently well-stocked.

The three young leads are all superb. Rea Lest could’ve easily carried the film with her fascinating lead performance as the complex Liina, a beautiful young girl whose father has promised her in marriage to an old gnarly farmer friend. But she’s infatuated with the quirky young man, Hans, and, albeit briefly, it looks like they might actually get together when the village elder suggests they should be the ones to escape the plague and carry on the bloodline of their people. He also suggests that his people can fool the plague—which appears in different forms including a young woman, a white goat, and a black pig—by wearing their pants on their heads! So, we get the idea that a few of his ideas might not pan out as intended.

By this time, though, Hans has laid eyes on the Baron’s young daughter and is so besotted with her exotic beauty that he’s taken to lurking among the trees near the Mansion every night in the hope of seeing her sleep-walk, which she does with increasing regularity. He doesn’t realise that, in turn, he’s being spied upon by Liina, in her wolf form…

In his first major role as Hans, Jörgen Liik spends a lot of time brooding and looking intense, even whilst playing a Spaghetti Western-style jaw-harp, but later does a lot of inane love-sick grinning. He manages both with the youthful charm of innocence and even when he becomes selfish and obsessed, he’s difficult to dislike, reminding us of that Nietzsche quote “what we do for love is beyond good and evil”. Indeed, he is prepared to do a deal with the devil, but solely for love and at the expense of his own soul.

Together the entire cast portrays an unusual dramatis personae with no real villains—except maybe the Devil himself, but that’s kind of in the job description. He’s played with bawdy relish by Jaan Tooming. Oh, and one chap ‘loses it’ completely and does some very bad things indeed. Even the bit-parts are interesting and hint at further stories we only get to glimpse a few facets of, making them seem like part of their community, with pasts and discernible individual traits, even if they only appear onscreen for a few minutes. The untold love story of the ‘wise-old’ Sander (Heino Kalm) and the Witch with a wicked sense of humour (Klara Eighorn) are delicately alluded to, but effectively emotive, nonetheless.

November could easily have become too cluttered with characters and its many rich ideas, but Sarnet masterfully maintains focus. He keeps the central story clear and easy to follow. The narrative is burgeoning with intriguing concepts, subtexts and folkloric detail that threaten to overwhelm what is at heart a simple story. But in the end, all this only enriches the tapestry, making the whole thing immersive and even more rewarding on repeat viewings.

Perhaps this richness comes from the literary source material. Rehepapp ehk November, first published in 2000, swiftly became a best-seller and established its author, Andrus Kivirähk, as Estonia’s most popular contemporary writer. He’s a filmmaker in his own right and co-creator of the character, Lotte—a young puppy who features in a series of children’s anthropomorphised animated adventures set in Gadgetville. His two original novels to date are both inspired by Estonian myths and folklore, striving for magical realism in a fairy tale version of the real world.

His 2007 follow-up novel, The Man Who Spoke Snakish/Mees, Kes Teadis Ussisõnu, is about the last of the ancient Estonian forest dwellers who practice traditional magical ways and can be identified by their ability to speak with animals, particularly snakes, rather like the young Harry Potter! Both books have now been translated into several languages and Snakish won the 2014 Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, a French accolade for imaginative fiction.

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The film is so full of surprises that I don’t want to give too much away here, but I think some of my favourite moments are provided by one of the Kratt characters. It can’t even move as it is little more than a glorified snowman but in a beautifully poetic twist, this creature holds the memories carried by the water it’s made from, which has travelled down rivers and fallen as rain against windows and had recently flowed through the canals of Venice where it witnessed a romantic interlude between two star-crossed lovers in a gondola… an enchanting story-within-a-story told in beautifully bleached flashback.

I can’t hand-on-heart promise you that November has a fairy tale ‘happily ever after’ ending. The denouement is unexpected, and yet just as inevitable as the interwoven stories leading up to it. There’s a cautionary tale in there and a political subtext about changing times, bone-deep values, freedom and servitude. In the hands of a lesser director, things could’ve ended up pretty bleak, but Sarnet has remained true to the satirical bent of Kivirähk’s original text and keeps things on the lighter side. The sustained dreamlike quality belies the care and attention that has been given to setting down reasonable cause and effect. The subtle prefiguring and foreshadowing all pays-off in the final act. That’s if you’ve been paying attention. Although bitter-sweet in the extreme, it’s satisfying and ends up as puzzling as it is poignantly poetic. November is mesmerising and memorable.

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Blu-ray & DVD Special Features:

It would’ve been fantastic to have a commentary or even some cast biographies, but as this title gathers the sort of cult respect expected, I’m sure there’ll be a collectors’ special edition, one day…

  • 1080p presentation on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD.
  • Uncompressed LPCM 2.0 audio (on Blu-ray).
  • Optional English subtitles.
  • Trailers.
  • PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. A lovely little booklet with an extended review serving as liner-notes along with some good black and white images to remind us of the film’s beauty. It’s more than an insert and the least one should expect. An interview with the director or the author of the original novel would have been too much to ask, I suppose. I’d love to have seen some production stills or concept sketches…


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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Rainer Sarnet.
starring: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Arvo Kukumägi, Katariina Unt & Taavi Eelmaa.

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