November (Tribeca 2017)

November (2017)

If you ever wanted to see a Bergman film set in 19th Century Estonia and populated by a cast of peasants, aristocrats, demons, confused cows, angry pigs, witches, werewolves, and ghosts that turn into chickens, with some heady appearances by Satan himself, then November is what you’ve been waiting for. A gorgeous and wholly unquantifiable work of weirdness, director Rainer Sarnet’s film plunges you into a fascinating netherworld of fairy stories and then abandons you there.

Insofar as November has a clear-cut plot, it tells the story of Liina (Rea Lest), a peasant girl living with her father in a tiny forest community on a Baron’s estate. Liina is in love with Hans (Jorgen Liik), who only has eyes for the Baron’s daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis), a sleepwalker who spends every night wandering to the top of the manor house and nearly plunging off. The romance winds through a narrative that encompasses warding off the plague, in the form of a beautiful young woman, a white goat, and a black pig; making deals with the Devil (Jaan Tooming) for the souls of kratts (farm implements brought to life to perform menial tasks); badgering the local witch for love potions; and searching for hoarded treasure.

November is based on the novel Rehepapp by Andrus Kivirähk and is steeped in Estonian folklore and tradition. As such, there’s probably a lot that an American audience (and an American reviewer) is going to miss, but that almost makes November more interesting, as it engages the viewer in its folkloric tropes at ground level, with minimal explantion. Shot in black and white, it’s a gorgeous film, with a depth and complexity of image that rivals the work of Bergman or Tarkovsky. While it most clearly falls into the category of a dark fairy tale, there are healthy bits of humor and surreal drama—the Devil in particular is a bizarre, almost clownish figure, easily fooled and easily angered. Stained with mud and snow, stark and wild as the Estonian landscape that the peasants inhabit, the film defies easy categorization.

November is like a fever dream, steeping the viewer in a world populated by strange creatures and people with rules that don’t entirely follow those of a recognizable reality. The fairy tale tropes, common to most Western traditions, do serve to ground the viewer somewhat, and if you pay attention, you can begin to understand trajectories of characters and vignettes. Christian and pagan traditions mix together in new, often outlandish ways, as the peasants attempt to outwit the Devil and use Communion wafers as bullets for hunting. But November is very much an Estonian film, and feels like traveling to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and don’t completely understand the customs. It builds on notions of greed and avarice especially, as the peasants are horribly poor while also hoarding money and possessions well after they’ve died. Yet their lives are richer, more in tune with the cycle of nature and life and death, than that of the German Baron (Dieter Laser) and his daughter, who live a stark, cold life in the crumbling manor house.

November will not appeal to everyone. For a fairy tale, it’s very slow-paced, taking its time to set scenes and construct images, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. You have to pay very close attention, to be willing to allow the film to wander off on tangents seemingly unrelated to the central story, to accept images that don’t seem to be grounded in any single narrative and without any clear explanation. November is building a world, not telling a straightforward narrative, and asks the viewer to engage with it like a child listening to a folk tale. If the viewer is willing to accept that—to go along for the ride—it’s an enlightening, exciting, and deeply bizarre experience.

November is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. See it – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.