I want to describe the opening scene of Rainer Sarnet’s November because it’s absolutely bonkers. There’s a sentient creature comprised of three scythes and a cow skull. It moves in a herky-jerky fashion using its scythes as feet and legs–picture a hula hoop with the rhythm of a slinky descending the stairs. We learn later that this thing is known as a kratt, a type of slave-class automaton imbued with a human soul. The kratt wraps a chain around a lone cow, and then spins its scythe limbs rapidly like the rotors on a helicopter. The kratt flies, carrying the burgled heifer high above the trees. The theft of the cow is successful and the kratt’s owner–a fetid and oafish-looking villager–is pleased.
Nothing in else in November is as good as that opening scene.
To be fair, nothing in most movies is as good as this opening scene. For cult and art house fans, November feels like a collaboration between Bela Tarr and Andrzej Zulawski, yet missing a compelling narrative throughline despite the overwhelming weirdness.
[This review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 19th to April 30th in New York City. For tickets and more information about the festival, click here.]
Director: Rainer Sarnet
Release Date: TBD
November is an adaptation of various Estonian folktales which are mashed together yet don’t quite cohere. There’s a werewolf girl in love with a peasant boy, but the peasant boy is in love with a sleepwalking girl who’s part of the gentry. There’s the threat of the coming plague, which leads villagers to resort to foolish remedies. The Devil wanders the woods at night, and for a little bit of blood he can give your kratt at soul. Somewhere and somehow these different threads might have braided together, but they instead feel too discrete. Even though I loved how strange these disparate tales were (though some of them didn’t have any sense of an ending), strangeness alone isn’t always sufficient. I longed for something more to care about than just weirdness–plot, character, a sense of direction, some basic set-ups and payoffs.
Admittedly, my disconnect from November may be cultural. There are probably aspects of Polish and Estonian history and the national character that would have informed my viewing of the film. Instead I watched in a kind of baffled awe, wondering where it was going, just going with it, and not knowing what to make of things once I arrived at the end of the film.
If anything, November is so exquisitely shot that I wasn’t necessarily bored by it. There’s always something beautiful or strange to look at. The kratts (which sadly don’t play a major part in the story) are works of brilliant tool shed/junk pile puppetry. There’s a procession of ghosts in the woods at night that only really comes up once, but it’s so hauntingly beautiful, with figures in white moving past torches and trees with an elegiac grace. The sumptuous black and white imagery plays with shadow and fog so well that even when my mind check out of the story by the halfway point, my eyes were transfixed from beginning to end.
(NOTE: original score 6.5/10)