Director: Rainer Sarnet
Screenplay: Rainer Sarnet
Based on a Novel by: Andrus Kivirähk
Starring: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Arvo Kukumägi, Katariina Unt, Taavi Eelmaa, Dieter Laser
Country: Estonia, Netherlands, Poland
Running Time: 115 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Rainer Sarnet’s November, which is based on a popular Estonian novel by Andrus Kivirähk (titled ‘Rehepapp ehk November’), came out in its home country back in 2017 to great acclaim. It even won ‘Best Estonian Picture’ at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Soon after, it hit the worldwide festival circuit and picked up a few more awards along the way, but for some reason it seemed to bypass the UK. Thankfully, Eureka were on hand to pick up the film for release over here, under their Montage Pictures offshoot, and thank God they did, because it’s a unique gem of a film that deserves to be better known.
November is set in 19th Century Estonia, in a poor village whose inhabitants largely work for a wealthy German Baron (played by The Human Centipede’s Dieter Laser). This is not your typical village though, at least not in our view of the world. It’s a place where farmers have ‘kratt’ to do much of their manual labour. The kratt are creatures from Estonian folklore that are made up of bits and pieces (here largely farming implements and skulls) and given life through a contract with the devil himself, signed by giving 3 drops of your blood. This contract entails selling your soul to Beelzebub, who can be found in the woods at night, and promises your life to him after your kratt dies.
Liina (Rea Lest) is a young woman living in the village who is promised to an overweight, pig-like older man. She only has eyes for Hans (Jörgen Liik) though, so shuns her repulsive betrothed at every opportunity. Unfortunately, Hans falls madly in love with the Baron’s beautiful niece (Jette Loona Hermanis), creating a doomed triangle. Hans’ lowly status is unlikely to impress the Baroness and his obsessive and unwavering desire for her prevents Liina from getting what she wants too.
The film’s fantastical elements develop when Liina uses magic to try to win her love, turning herself into a wolf to pry on Hans and the Baroness. A local witch suggests Liina could kill the Baroness too, but can she go through with that? All we know is it’s probably not going to end well and an outbreak of the plague (meted out by a shape-shifting physical embodiment of the disease) doesn’t help matters.
As teased at the start of this review, I loved November. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it totally bowled me over from an early stage. Initially most impressive is the cinematography. Mart Taniel’s visuals earned him a few of the awards I mentioned earlier and rightfully so, as the film looks fantastic. Using an unusual combination of black and white and infra-red film and digital cameras, Taniel crafts photography with striking whites and a roughly textured depiction of the grim realities of peasant life contrasting with hauntingly beautiful fantastical imagery. The sequence when the villagers wait in the woods at night to meet and bring home their dead relatives for supper and a sauna is particularly gorgeous. Every frame is a work of art and even if the unusual nature of the film does little for you, the visuals are enough to draw you in.
What won me over more than anything though was how unique the film felt. Although based on Estonian folklore, the mythology felt fresh to me. The kratt, in particular, are a bizarre addition to the film, animated in a crude but effective fashion reminiscent of the work of Jan Švankmajer. They’re well utilised too, proving horrific in an early scene, poetic in others and more often than not, very funny.
This humour is another aspect that sets the film apart from other gothic fantasy films and helped aid my thorough enjoyment of it all. Although the subject matter is often very dark and later quite poignant, comedy runs through the film’s veins from start to finish. From the first kratt we see turning into a makeshift helicopter, to the witch convincing a lovelorn man to feed his faeces and body hair to the woman he has his eyes on, the film is filled with skewed gags that help keep you engaged amongst the often bizarre goings-on.
Also helping ground the film is the central love story. Although we briefly venture off into a few odd directions along the way, the tale of unrequited love between Liina and Hans is always the main focus and is beautifully portrayed. Having a classic romance like this at its core means the film doesn’t get lost in the absurdity elsewhere. Also, most of the film is kept unified by a clear theme of greed and entitlement, which permeates everything.
All in all then, November is a wholly unique, beautiful, yet twisted fairy tale that’s kept on the straight and narrow by a simple but effective love story and a moral warning about greed and the value of the human soul. It’s utterly bewitching, funny and touching in equal measure, and finely crafted to boot. Simply stunning.
November is out on 18th March on dual-format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Montage Pictures offshoot. The film looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-Ray.
Sadly there are no extra features on the disc, although you do get a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. This is worth a read, but it would have been nice to get an interview with the director or a commentary too.