Spellbinding Love – A Review of ‘November’

Can soulmates exist when souls themselves are currency to be exchanged? That question is the core of this story of unrequited love set in a 19th century pagan Estonian village. Among the villagers struggling to survive a hard winter is the young Liina (Rea Lest), who is hopelessly in love with Hans (Jörgen Liik). His affections, however, are elsewhere, with the baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) in the nearby manor. Both Liina and Hans turn to dark mystic arts steeped in their regions native folklore to find means of winning the objects of their affection.

November is writer/director Rainer Sarnet‘s utterly surreal adaptation of author Andrus Kivirähk’s bestselling novel Rehepapp ehk November. To say there’s nothing quite like it is an understatement. The film is a stunning work, brilliantly realized by Sarnet. The stark black and white cinematography, which won Best Cinematography at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, transports viewers into a fantastic and unfamiliar world where spirits of the dead can return to the living world, werewolves roam the night, and household objects can be combined to create sentient entities known as Kratts once their maker barters with the devil.

The villagers maintain their pagan beliefs even as Christianity encroaches upon them. They believe they can trick a plague into avoiding their village by wearing pants on their heads so it appears they have two asses, which would intimidate any plague-bearer. They turn up for communion at a nearby church, not because they wish to convert, but because they believe the communion wafers–those tiny bits of the body of Christ–make excellent bullets for hunting because no beast would be able to able to resist Jesus. Their beliefs are as charming as they are bizarre.

These charms are just some of the types of spells this film conjures. Its tone oscillates from whimsy to sorrow to horror and back, all encompassed by a type of absurd futility found in Soviet/post-Soviet storytelling. There’s a mischievous quality to the film as a whole, playing tricks with the viewers as the story unfolds. From the opening scene, we’re thrown into this world of Kratts and quirks, and before we know it, we can’t escape it. Though presented as a dizzying funhouse mirror reflection of love, the film ultimately reveals itself to be a much truer and clear vision. Love is foolish and honest, selfish and self-destructive, and never the same from one person to the next.

November opens in New York on February 23, 2018, and then in Los Angeles on March 2.