Even when we think we might have seen it all, cinema can still surprise us with hidden treasures. The farmer photographs of a certain Johannes Pääsuke, or the novel, Rehepapp ehk november, by Andrus Kivirähk, probably don’t ring any bells. The inspirations behind the photos, and the adaptation of the book, were more than enough for Rainer Sarnet to write and direct November – a glimmering, Earthy diamond in cinema’s rough patch.
With a background in theater, Sarnet says he “was drawn to the book because of the animism, the belief that all things have a soul. The story mixes Estonian fairy tales with Christian mythology.” Rooted in such melodic history and poetic landscape, November is an entry into our ever-evolving education of world cinema, representing Estonia. The pastoral villages, horizons, the extraordinary, authentic rural Estonia, take us, perhaps, somewhere between the 19th-century and medieval times.
The multi-layered depiction of the yearning for souls, is the heart of the picture to some degree. Visually, when filmmakers turn to a black and white canvas, light and shadows can stand out like a saw thumb. In the case of November, it is almost like we are served with the innovations of a new world of cinema on a silver platter. Like previous masterpieces, Ida and The White Ribbon, here the lighting is so vivid, so crystal clear, its truly remarkable.
Cinematographer Mart Taniel’s black and white is a thing of beauty. I mean, a lot of the action takes place at night, and we imagine the moonlight, and the stars, to be so strong, so piercing, we dare not look directly at them. Nor do we need to. Technically, this works wonders with the visual hues and contrasts, exposure of such crisp, magnificent images. And adds to the film’s spectacular finer details
We join the characters on All Souls Day, at the start of the month of November. The film establishes its fable status from the outset. In fact, recreating such an impoverished, old-time little society, appears seamless, when it ought to be no easy feat. Yet director, Sarnet, tells us in not many words that everything or anything is possible. Not just in the lives we encounter on-screen, but the filmic experience we’re fed.
A tale of folklore, of ordinary people, amidst everyday struggles, habitual acceptance of the occult, superstitions, soul-bargaining, the quest for a love with a simple significance. I’m not even skimming the surface. November opens as white waters ripple, thinly iced over, frosted evergreens, a wolf rubbing herself on the snowy ground. The mood is set. And there are many more to follow.
The creek of machinery, kind of like an old bike, breaks the tranquility. Turning over and over, a blade-headed contraption, made up of just three legs, possibly sticks or unwanted machine parts. An animal skull in the middle. The movement of this entity is eerie as it rolls through the natural world we know. It breaks down a small barn’s door, and pulls a cow away. Returning the cow to a grateful old farmer, the animal skull speaks: “Give me work.”
We later realize that a human soul gives it temporary life – a Kratt. A peculiar creature, that must work or else acts violently and / or literally falls apart. In a later scene, the same Kratt, this time has cast irons for feet, a bicycle seat for a head. They appear clumsy, and the property of their masters. When the farmer tells the Kratt to go make him a ladder from bread, off it goes. A rather comical concept, especially when the Kratt looks back and forth, back and forth, between a ladder and the roll of bread skewered on its knife, puzzled.
Much of the seemingly mis-matched, profound, spiritual dialogue would go astray in many other attempts. But here, it is so much part of the wooden furniture, it’s surreal nature is wonderfully fitting. There’s a brief, bizarre conversation about an arranged marriage. Yet it is the identity of the bride that causes the confusion, rather than the prospect of marrying a pig or slitting a throat. The dialogue has a sense of enigma and lyricism, November is not crammed with it, but immersive all the same. “You don’t have to get married. You can simply love.”, is one such notion familiar in today’s life pool, not just ancient times.
This mystery, horror, folktale, keeps coming back to the young woman Liina, a farmer’s daughter. A girl who works on the farm, and pines over local boy Hans, by day. At night, full moon pending, Liina heads into the deep, dark forest, de-robes, and howls into the night, on her transition to wolf.
Her unrequited love for Hans is mirrored by his own clandestine affections for the Baron’s daughter, who lives up in the mansion. Early in the story, as a gathering of deceased join their loving relatives, Hans says to Liina: “I saw your mother standing by the willow tree.” With a slight sense of awe, Liina turns to him, “How did you know I was looking for my mother?” It might be the most subtle, unorthodox meet-cute in cinema’s history.
Beseiged with sorrow, Liina seeks counsel from a local witch, advising her to kill the Baron’s daughter. Armed with the arrow to do the deed, Liina instead prevents the baroness from falling to her death while sleepwalking. One of several twists of fate. Liine knows the hard life, but has a good heart.
As for Hans, he builds his own Kratt through a snowman and those magic currants – though it might just cost him his soul. His Kratt is somewhat wise in the field of love. Describing that he was once falling rain, water that carried ships. But the snowman also offers Hans guidance by suggesting he write his beloved a poem.
There’s little agenda for love among the characters of November. The young ones are drawn to it like amorous magnets, and its painful journey to fulfilment. The elderly are reflective of their own romantic histories, a tad complacent and regretful, depending on the weather.
It is the climate that eventually melts the snowman, and the end to Hans’ liaison with the Kratt. A surprisingly poignant scene. Liina and Hans are united for a while, albeit through deceptive appearances and a feverish hunger for love. Incidentally, Rea Lest as Liina, and Jörgen Liik as Hans, are both compelling screen presences here, and are entirely captivating in what is their breakthrough, big film roles.
November is bizarre and brilliant at every turn. Ancient spells and fairytale customs play their parts in the fantasy drama. A woman is asked to be carried across the river in exchange for a kiss – but its a fatal one. The Plague takes form in a talking boar and white goat, to name just two. To diguise themselves from the Plague, the locals put their pants over their heads so they “appear to have two arses”, therefore undetectable. Bonkers to us watching, but to them, in this particular story world, its an immediate call to action, and projection of safety.
It sure is an infectious tale, one which can fill your heart, boggle the mind, and chill you down to the bone. The intoxicating imagery is apparent from the opening frames, whether it be grotesque or ethereal. There’s a man-sized Satanic sprite, human hair chopped from a minister, a wandering baroness silhouetted by a glorious moonlight – the list may be endless in this concoction of the delicious macabre. The darker and more bewildering, the better November is.
A visual feast, then, even among the tatty buildings, muddy farmlands, cavern-like houses with low ceilings, animals roaming freely. Streaks of light pour through the gaps in the wood, the trees, or by candlelight. And the darkness is just as telling, even in the pitch-black areas. Every glance, turn of the head, footstep, means something. You can see cracks in the skin, the dryness of the beards, and glints in the eyes.
What makes November actually sound atmospheric, as well as the immaculate audio design, is the music. Estonian composer Jacaszek tantalizes with his mercifully underplayed score. It gets into your bloodstream and invigorates.
Sarnet has really spoiled us with this. Executing a fine sense of humanity amidst an other-worldy backdrop. He indulges in a multitude of cinematic senses, illuminating our own. November is a movie of paradoxical pleasures. It’s all very fresh while remaining familiar. Many of the darker segments are infused with some humor, and even moments of euphoria feel a tad melancholic. A film to ponder over, and cherish, for years to come.