J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tribeca ’17: November

Culturally, the Baltic States are considered more closely akin to Scandinavia than the Slavic countries, but the gothic goings on in this 19th Century Estonian village are downright Carpathian. Even the Devil himself has a role to play in Rainer Sarnet’s November (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Fundamentally, November is a story of mismatched and thwarted love. Pretty peasant girl Liina has fallen for Hans, the dashing Brom Bones of the village, but he has hopelessly and futilely fallen for the sleepwalking ward of the local lord. Much to her horror, Liina has been promised to a much older rustic by her severe grandfather. Liina’s mother does not approve of the match, but she remains estranged from her crotchety father, even though she is now a ghost.

Despite their Medieval-style Orthodox faith, the villagers are in constant commerce with the sulfuric one. To maintain their subsistence living, they build “kratts,” eerie looking robotic creatures constructed out of farm implements, but to animate them, they must purchase a soul from the Devil, at the cost of their own. They will also have to contend with the shape-shifting plague, which comes to town in the guise of a beautiful woman, but fittingly assumes the form of a goat.

November is the sort of film that is greater in the sum of its parts than as a whole. There are some wonderfully macabre and inventive scenes distributed throughout the film, but the parallel stories of Liina and Hans’ unrequited love really start to drag. Still, the kratt effects are wonderfully weird and eccentric, while Mart Taniel’s black-and-white cinematography is absolutely arresting.

Pacing might be an issue for Sarnet, but he creates a consistently otherworldly tone. It is an unsettling vibe, not entirely dissimilar from Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels. November is stuffed with creepiness, including hints there might be something lycanthropic going on with Liina. Yet, it is a cold, impersonal film that always keeps viewers at arm’s length.

Frankly, November is so ambitious and richly crafted, it is worth seeing just for its visuals. It is an auteurist film through and through that is guaranteed to attract a cult following among Tarkovsky and Zuławski fans. Recommended for bold cineastes, November screens again this afternoon (4/25), tomorrow (4/26), and Thursday (4/27), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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