On possession, magic, mournful love triangles, sleeping beauties, and the surprisingly egomaniacal behavior of household items
Director: Rainer Sarnet
Screenplay: Rainer Sarnet, based on the novel Rehepapp ehk November, by Andrus Kivirähk
Starring: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Arvo Kukumägi, Heino Kalm, Jette Loona Hermanis, Taavi Eelmaa, Jaan Tooming and Dieter Laser
Not rated / 1 hour, 55 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Hope has rarely been so ephemeral as it is in November, or so overwhelming. In Rainer Sarnet's astonishing pagan fairy-tale - set in the barren, frosty farmland of 19th Century Estonia, told in dreamy high-contrast black-and-white images - nothing lasts, so no wonder the fixation on possession. Nor the myriad ways these characters go about trying to gain it. Nor the dumbstruck yearning in their eyes as they dream of it.
To will or be willed. Choice or trickery, wishing or praying, winning or taking, buying or stealing, possessing or belonging. Such notions are contorted here so relentlessly - indeed, practically as a way of life - that it's impossible to know where one begins and the other ends. As regards possession, those distinctions don't much matter.
There are whispered myths about the hidden treasure of a local family; its owners keep the location to themselves even in death (and even when the villagers ask politely). At the German manor that sits on the far edge of town - residence of the Baron and his daughter - an Estonian servant explains in detail why he, in fact, has ownership rights to the Baroness' underwear, being that the manor, inhabited as it may be by Germans, rests on Estonian land. (During his speech he references Lembitu and the 13th Century conquest of Estonia by the Germans.) Other servants around the house have more or less the same philosophy, routinely taking dresses, scarves and other household items - these are as close to riches as any of them will ever see - referring to them as their own, and then trading them for valuables that other villagers have stolen from their families or ancestors.
Souls are for sale, too. The devil (here portrayed as a clownlike sadist, played by Jaan Tooming) imbues your handmade "kratt" (more on them in a bit) with a soul in exchange for your own, which he acquires via three drops of blood and a signature, a quick and easy arrangement consummated in the middle of the night in the middle of the woods. Such mystical transactions are commonplace - although the devil need not usually get involved - as the villagers throughout November, based on Andrus Kivirähk's novel Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barny aka November), rely on all kinds of spells, potions, recipes, ointments, and various other magics (among more dubious superstitions).
For Liina (Rea Lest) and Hans (Jörgen Liik) - the young romantics that take up the film's emotional center - the heart is more a more valuable commodity than even the soul. They are key figures in a woozy, hypnotic love triangle; Liina is in love with Hans; Hans is in love with the Baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis), who is ill and spends most of her time peacefully asleep. To win the hearts they desire, Liina and Hans, working at cross-purposes, will try anything. Incantations, transformations.
Aside from the excellence of these two lead performances as a whole, it's their faces that leave an especially profound impression. There is no hope more hopeful than the delirious, bright-eyed smiles on the faces of Lest and Liik; they're practically willing us to see the dreams they see, the ethereal abstraction of their unrealized passions, the fairy-tale ending that could be, but can't. At least not for both of them. Just as powerful are the older faces, lined beautifully with hard wrinkles; dreams were once visible in their eyes, too. In one striking moment, Liina - surrounded by the sharp whiteness of a recent snow - speaks to an old woman in the village who specializes in magical potions. The woman matter-of-factly, but with remnants of old pain, recounts a story of her own youth: "Right now, I'm an old hag. But I once waited for a boy to climb into my hayloft."
"Did he?" Liina asks, hopefully.
The woman shakes her head, and the two sit in silence for several moments, the wind their only accompaniment.
November's hopes and dreams are fleeting glimpses. Objects of affection often seem like walking apparitions, immortalized in white light that treasures them like holy possessions. Or holy memories. Sarnet - his images enhanced by Jacaszek's mournful, quiet score - captures the ineffable quality of the yearned-for, the idealized. In a pair of scenes the Baroness sleepwalks across the roof of the manor, her body backlit by the concealed brilliance of the distant moonlight, an immaculate wide shot at once precariously out-of-reach and achingly romantic. In fact, both descriptions could speak to the film itself, made up of so many intimate yet untouchable desires. Its romantic impulses are as sincere and hard-earned as its melancholy notes, exemplified most memorably by an underwater sequence worthy of L'atlalante.
That said, this is also an extremely funny and silly movie, and it's the competing tones - swooning, dreamlike romance and oddball absurdism - that give it such a peculiar and memorable flavor. Its opening moments are haunting and portentous - there's a real sense of doom in those opening musical cues - a mood immediately answered by the image of a rickety stick figure bounding across the grounds of a wealthy estate, stealing a cow, and then flying it - like La Dolce Vita's Christ statue - across the hills to its master's home. It's a funny and surprising image in and of itself, made even funnier by the screwy ways this creature and its ilk are anthropomorphized throughout the movie. This is one of the aforementioned kratts - figures made of wood, rope, tools, skulls, spare parts (anything you can find, really), who live only to work (once they've been possessed of a soul) for their creator-masters.
Of course, they may be loyal farmhands and laborers, but they're no pushovers. In small moments here and there, we see glimpses of delightfully antagonistic battles of ego between kratts and their masters - at times extending even to physical altercations when a kratt doesn't get its way or has begun to feel unwanted. In the film's most hilarious moment, Sarnet gets us inside the bewildered head of a kratt owned by Liina's father, Rein (Arvo Kukumägi). Given an impossible task ("Go make a ladder out of bread"), the kratt looks at one and then the other, and Sarnet cuts, with a violent subjective precision, between the ladder, the bread, and the kratt's "face" darting between the two, a rapidly accelerating sense of panicked confusion setting in before the kratt finally just ... explodes, like a scanner's head or a Spinal Tap drummer.
Later in the film, one character makes a kratt out of a snowman, of all things, surely knowing that it's bound to melt. When it finally does (the next morning, in fact), there remains a dazed smile on his face. He may have only had the kratt for a single day and he may have used his own soul as collateral, but it served its prayerful purpose.
The impermanence is beside the point, really. One night of seeing your dream come true - or even just a moment - can last a lifetime. Those romantic dreams may be temporary or even illusory, but they're yours - Liina's, Hans's, even that of the poor sap who bakes a severely ill-fated loaf of bread in a misguided attempt to win a woman's heart - forever. It's only fitting that a surreal beauty like November be an ode to fleeting notions too poetic for any permanent place in the real world.