Tuesday, 20 August 2019

November (Rainer Sarnet, 2017)


Rainer Sarnet's film, produced with support from the Netherlands Film Fund and the Netherlands Film Production Incentive, is an ambitious work which sits somewhere between Hard to Be a God and the work of David Lynch.  A folk tale set in the 19th century, November centres on the stories of poor farm girl Liina (Rea Lest) and fellow peasant Hans (Jörgen Liik).  Although she's promised to a grotesque farmer, Liina has romantic designs on Hans, who in turn only has eyes for the somnambulist daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of a German aristocrat (Dieter Laser, familiar from Tom Six's Human Centipede trilogy).  Both Hans and Liina are stretching for a love which seems out of reach, yet with superstition and magic seemingly all around the village (despite - or because of - the presence of the Church), the pair resort to other, darker means in order to capture the hearts of those they desire.


One way in which magic manifests itself is in the form of kratt, creatures who live to work and are usually made up of tools and other pieces of wood and metal; these oddities only come to life when they're furnished with a soul, which their masters obtain via a bargain with the devil (Satan is personified here, and always meets those looking to animate a kratt at, quite appropriately, a deserted crossroads).  Some try to dupe the devil by signing his book in berry juice instead of their blood, but it's a trick he soon becomes wise to.  If all this wasn't enough, the villagers also have to contend with werewolves (which Liina may know a little something about) and the plague which, amusingly, takes the form of a goat.  


All Souls' Day, which occurs during the month of the film's title, features in the story in a rather novel way: rather than the dead simply being remembered, here they actually come back for the day, and return to their families and homes; the eerie nocturnal sequence in which the villagers collect the departed from the graveyard is both highly effective and rather moving.  The treatment of All Souls' Day is a good marker of how the villagers view, and deal with, Christianity (communion wafers are coughed up to be used as bullets for hunting - the logic being that Jesus can fell any animal).  Christ's teachings exist as just one of the belief systems in place, with paganism also playing a prominent role here; it's as if these venal villagers take a pick 'n' mix approach to religion, borrowing bits of different philosophies in order to attain their selfish goals.


While much of the film takes on a very serious tone, there a number of laugh-out-loud moments, the bulk of which come courtesy of the kratt, which stand as the most bizarre entities glimpsed on a screen since the manifestation of the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks: The Return.  Watching a kratt move (and talk) is as funny as it is disconcerting, and the quiver of a misery whip which tops a pile of newly-disassembled kratt parts is a comic highlight.  The kratt are also capable of eliciting other emotions, too: the film's menacing opening sequence sees one of the creatures stealing a very worried cow, while there's a real melancholy to the scenes between the lovelorn Hans and his snowman kratt (by far the least utilitarian of the creatures featured here, but you'll miss him when he's gone).


It would be wrong to review November and not mention what is undoubtedly the film's strongest suit: the cinematography.  Mart Taniel's lensing really is a joy to behold, and the stark, icy monochrome images are little short of incredible. Taniel contributes so much to the film's rich atmosphere, and his work means that the film is never dull, even if the story can be best described as fitfully engaging.  While the film could use a bit of tightening up in places, it throws around enough in the way of interesting ideas to ensure that viewer concentration never wanders; a lively and fitting score also does much to help move things along.  

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video

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