Have you ever had a dream that makes perfect sense while you’re asleep, but when you wake up and try to make sense of it you can’t for the life of you piece it back together? That’s what watching November feels like. Best described as Estonian folk-fantasy meets noir fever dream, November is mesmerizing, magical, and downright weird. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk and directed by Rainer Sarnet, this film is like nothing I’ve ever seen before (and yet, strangely reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ The Witch). While I would certainly recommend brushing up on your Estonian folklore before diving in, November is a must-see for lovers of film and fantasy alike.
The narrative takes the form of an overarching love story peppered with a series of bizarre vignettes—little snippets of superstition, struggle, and survival, all coming together to build the world of this 19th century Estonian village. To give you a taste of the kind of weirdness to expect, the film opens on a three-pronged robot-like creature (my first thought was of a metallic tumbleweed) picking up and helicoptering a calf from the barn to the main house. We later learn this strange creature is a kratt, a mythical servant made of household objects and given a soul when its owner signs the devil’s book—evidently a fixture in Estonian folk stories. Other fun folk elements include a ritual celebration of All Soul’s Eve, in which ancestral ghosts are fed and taken to the sauna, where they turn into giant chickens. The cast of characters is long and varied, with a personified plague, the devil, and a possible werewolf all making appearances.
Although all of these vignettes provide interesting insights into Estonian culture, they can be a bit distracting when it comes to the main storyline. Our protagonist, a peasant girl named Liina, is desperately in love with a fellow villager, Hans, who in turn has fallen in love with a German baroness. It’s a classic love triangle, with our female protagonist struggling to process her unrequited feelings for Hans and incorporating much of the magic surrounding her into her fight for recognition from the one she loves. For me, her willingness to suffer silently so that Hans could find love with the baroness brought up questions about self-sacrificial love, and whether the way it’s portrayed in film is often gendered. The film, however, makes few comments on gender, save for Liina’s narrow escape from a betrothal to an incredibly pig-like man, focusing instead on the lush occult image-scape.
What this film lacks in cohesive narrative it makes up in stunning black and white visuals and incredible lighting, with ghosts appearing to glow, water rippling darkly through the forest, and snow seeming to bleed as it melts.
Beyond the surface-level bizarreness of November lies a beautifully nuanced meditation on the ideas of love and belonging. In an Estonian town wrought with poverty (so much so that Liina’s family survives on tree bark and bats), it’s hard to tell what dust-covered object belongs to which soot-smudged person. In the midst of seemingly constant thievery and bizarre actions motivated by greed, the German baron lives in an enormous, if slightly run-down, manor, passively watching the chaos that surrounds him and never intervening. This bedazzled suit-wearing character is the most darkly comic in the film (aside from the kratts, of course), so detached from the peasants’ reality that he fails to notice or care as the Estonians traipse through his house and over his land, soiling and stealing everything in sight. The film begs the question: is it really his property they are stealing when his foreign presence is occupying their country and living prosperously while they starve?
In contrast to the objects, easily pilfered and secreted away, love doesn’t change hands so easily. Both Liina and Hans try to harness the magic powers that abound in this fairy-tale world to win the hearts of their beloved, putting themselves in liege with dark forces to do so. Again, the film asks its viewers to ponder belonging; how despite the sometimes overwhelming desire to possess the one you love, you can never truly own them.
In some ways, November escapes capture as well, lingering in the dark, dreamlike peripheries of the mind, not fully understood, but definitely, viscerally, felt.
dir. Rainer Sarnet
Now playing at the MFA through April 25th.