The Estonian fantasy drama November is disjointed, absurd, and one of the most visually arresting films of 2017. The story (based on a bestselling novel by Andrus Kivirähk and adapted by director Rainer Sarnetaking) takes place in a village swirling with creatures and spirits as the threat of plague hangs overhead, and borrows heavily from mythologies of pagan and Euro-Christian origins.
It is fairly difficult to get a handle on the plot until well into the second act, but feelings of awe and dread ensue from the very first frame. Blinding whiteness gives way to shots of a wolf bounding along a river’s edge and rolling freely along the snow-laden bank. This gentle
introduction is immediately followed by an alarming sight: a heap of branches and metal bearing an axe like a limb careens its way into a barn, surveys a cow, and proceeds to steal it. By some untold power, it takes flight and soars above the trees of the forest as the cow, bound in chains, dangles helplessly below. This creature is later revealed to be a kratt, a servant cobbled together with raw materials and brought to life through a deal with the Devil.
Oddly enough, this string of confounding scenes sets the tone for the rest of the story, which plays out as a beautiful, slow-moving masterpiece that is constantly interrupted by strange nonsequiturs. In spite of its nontraditional narrative, November follows a fairy tale format rather faithfully, with broad moral themes, romantic imagery, and disturbing acts of villainy.
The main plot follows one of the more conventional storytelling techniques: the love triangle. Liina (Rea Lest), a farm girl with the ability to transform a wolf, pines for Hans (Jörgen Liik), a peasant boy blind to her affection and obsessed with winning the attention of a sleepwalking baroness. Surrounding this trio of doomed lovers is a cast of villagers motivated by greed and survival. They constantly steal from each other, while in turn wreaking revenge on those who have done the same to them.
Trapped in endless cycles of violence and immorality, the peasants do not care if they hurt one another, insult their ancestors, or wrong the Devil himself. Themes of greed and ignorance are noticeably prevalent and sometimes intermingle, such as in a scene where a villager comes across a bar of soap in a mansion atop the hill. Completely devoid of any context for what it is, he picks up the soap and eats it whole, sloppily licking his fingers clean when he’s done.
These villagers, outside of their more barbaric pursuits of hunger and lust, also grapple with what it means to have a soul. Men bargain their souls carelessly to achieve their goals, while the Devil collects them like prizes with a swift crack of the neck. Even when it’s not traded away, much of the townspeople’s humanity is wasted in the bodies of fools. Ironically enough, the being with the most emotional sensitivity is ultimately a kratt made from snow. Provided with a temporary soul, it advises its maker on love, and has barely enough time to dispense poetic wisdom before it coughs, sputters, and melts back down to the earth.
The musical score is unsettling, dipping in and out when it serves the story, as soft plucks of strings alternate with sudden blares of sound. It suits the cinematography well, which itself is the most praiseworthy aspect of the film. November is shot in black and white, but instead of limiting the scope of the imagery, it elevates it to new heights, allowing the lighter hues to shine amidst bold, inky shadows. Early on, Liina emerges from a forest path at night, her figure a tiny pinprick of light that is dwarfed by the dark web of trees that loom towards her in a threatening tilt.
Though many of scenes in the latter half of the film are filled with light, cinematographer Mart Taniel still finds ways to present Liina as a lonely heroine. At one moment later on she finds herself shrouded in black on a snowy hill, the only object visible in a sea of white. The shot holds still, with a note of sadness. In a village overflowing with leering men, a bloodthirsty demon, and an oblivious lover, these moments of solitude may be her only escape from a chaotic life and an equally chaotic film.