In a Gothic setting infused with Eastern European folklore, this weird, adult fairy tale puts atmosphere over plot, with help from outstanding black-and-white cinematography (and moments of humour).
Time: 1 hr 55 mins
When the movie begins with a rusty, three-legged creature with a cow’s skull at its hub and sharp blades for feet wheeling its way across a field, capturing a cow and turning its limbs into rotor blades to carry the cow back to its owner’s hovel, you know that you are in for an unpredictable ride.
When it turns out that a peasant family have made it, and they make it explode by confusing it, Star Trek-like (by telling it to “make a ladder with bread”) then you get a taste of the film’s ever-present surrealism and dark humour.
At its heart, November is a story of unrequited love. After a drinking session, peasant girl Liina’s father has betrothed her to marry a grim old man at least twice her age. Liina wants to marry Hans, but Hans falls for a baroness, who sleeps a lot and sleepwalks almost as much. Liina (who has a surprise night time occupation) consults a witch, who advises her to kill the baroness with a special arrow.
But plot is not the main attraction here. Set on the eve of All Souls Day, when the dead rise to visit, director Rainer Sarnet has created a world like a cinematic Grimm’s fairy tale with Eastern European folklore threaded through it, where objects (Kratts) can take on a soul in a deal like a supernatural mortgage (it’s amazing what three currants can get you) and feed off work; where death is clever enough to become an animal, but thick enough to be fooled by the peasants wearing trousers on their heads. “Take your pants off and put them on your head – the plague will think we have two arses and won’t dare to touch us.”
The movie does have sub-texts of corruption, superstition and magic, because – as in Old Testament times – when life is at stake, people will do anything to survive in such a bleak landscape, including stealing from each other, those they deem to be foreigners, the spirit world, even the devil and Christ. The villagers attend Catholic mass, but show no faith in the rest of the film. And why does the image of Christ bleed – is it with despair at the all-pervading evil? But you won’t watch it for these levels – at least not until you’ve seen it a few times to grasp the nuances of the main storyline, as the weirdness muddies the logic that makes a story easy to follow.
The peasants are consistently filthy, with torn clothes, Liine's family living in a hovel, where the ceiling is so low that they can’t stand up fully and where they share the room with a cow. Discussing their food with some ghosts, another pair comments that all they have to eat is willow bark and slush.
By contrast, the Baron and his daughter are gleaming white with pristine clothes. Whether daytime or nocturnal scenes, the film’s radiantly clear black-and-white cinematography is sublime (just watch for the use of windows), its use of light putting the art well and truly into ‘art house’.
While that plot is somewhat thin, it matters not a bit, because the joy is in the style. And it has style in bucket-loads. Big bucket-loads.