A deeply peculiar folklore-informed picture in which unrequited love is more troubling than the plague, the Devil and a forest full of ghosts, Rainer Sarnet's November upends any expectations moviegoers may have when they hear the words "black-and-white film from Estonia." Its stranger notes may initially put viewers in mind of early Guy Maddin or even Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, but November (adapting Andrus Kivirahk’s novel Rehepapp) proves a bit more accessible than either, ultimately boiling down to a universal story of yearning. Winner of a deserved cinematography prize at Tribeca, the film should do well for the eclectic and adventurous distributor Oscilloscope.
In an impoverished Estonian hamlet whose inhabitants sometimes resort to eating tree bark, farmers often obtain supernatural servants called kratts. Made of whatever is at hand — an animal's skull, some rakes and rusty knives, say — they work tirelessly, and in fact can't help themselves: If one finds itself without a chore to do, it will turn to mischief, even murder of its master.
Those kratts will be the attention-grabber here, letting unprepared viewers know they haven't walked into some dour Eastern-European drama, and they provoke many of the laughs in this sneakily funny film. But they're hardly the only source of weirdness in a pic drawing on all sorts of fairy tales and on Kivirahk’s own imagination: Here, the dead come back to life frequently, dining with old neighbors and saying of the afterlife, "can't complain"; ordinary folk make deals with the Devil and find clever ways to cheat him; and diseases are personified by farm animals who might not find you if you wear your pants on your head.
Surrounded by old folks and in danger of being forced to marry a repulsive farmer, young Liina (Rea Lest) longs to wed friend Hans (Jorgen Liik). But Hans is dumbstruck by a newly arrived German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis), whose porcelain beauty is unsmudged by life's hardship. Both youngsters plot to use magic or other trickery to win the love they seek. Aren't things complicated enough, without the possibility that both women are werewolves?
Though the emotional pull of this love triangle grows more compelling in the second half, for much of its running time November prefers to beguile us with the strangeness of its setting and characters. Mart Taniel's fine monochrome lensing in general presents fantastic scenes with a matter-of-fact clarity that enables Sarnet's deadpan comedy; a score by Polish musician Jacaszek throws in just enough menacing electric guitar cues to raise the possibility that all this will end in real horror. Sarnet's previous features, even a 2011 adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, appear to have gone unseen in the English-speaking world. Judging from November, that should change right away.
Production company: Homeless Bob Production
Cast: Rea Lest, Jorgen Liik, Arvo Kukumagi, Katariina Unt, Taavi Eelmaa, Dieter Laser, Jette Loona Hermanis
Director-screenwriter: Rainer Sarnet
Producer: Katrin Kissa
Director of photography: Mart Taniel
Production designers: Matis Maesalu, Jaagup Roomet
Costume designer: Jaanus Vahtra
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition)
Sales: Katrin Kissa, Homeless Bob Production
In Estonian and German