The word “crazy” often gets tossed around in discussions of fringe genre cinema. However, I am here to report that November—now playing in theaters—is all-caps CRAZY in the best, funniest, most exhilarating way possible. A mere description cannot, I recognize, do its out-there-ness true justice. And yet because I cannot beam it directly into your eyeballs (I’m sorry!), I shall now endeavor to pay tribute to this masterful black-and-white Estonian romantic fairy tale involving werewolves, ghosts, witches, supernatural garden-tool creatures, the Devil, and—for good measure—the creepy German guy from The Human Centipede. You can start preemptively considering it your new favorite cult movie right now.
An adaptation of Andrus Kivirahk’s novel Rehepapp, writer/director Rainer Sarnet’s feature plays like Hard to Be a God via The Seventh Seal via Mario Bava via Jan Svankmajer’s animation via the Brothers Grimm, except with a strange, hallucinatory originality all its own.
November’s focus is love in all its pained, unrequited complexity, as evidenced by its opening shot of a frozen lake whose surface ice boasts the shape of a heart cracked in two. Nonetheless, before the film begins exploring that subject, it first dovetails straight into bizarreness, with a prolonged sequence of a wolf running about—and rolling in the snow—at night, which culminates with a shot of a girl sleeping in a house. Then, Sarnet cuts to a three-pronged windmill-like thing—made up of long sticks tied together with rope, an animal skull for a head, and blades for hands—using chains to drag a cow out of a barn, and subsequently taking flight like a helicopter, its bovine pet dangling in the air below it. This trip ends with the wacko entity crashing into a tree, where its master finds it and, angry at its incompetence, tells it to go make a ladder out of a loaf of bread—an illogical demand that literally blows the creature’s mind.
This whatsit—constructed out of garden tools, and used by its makers as servants—is known as a käät, and is imbued with a human soul. How did it get that soul, you’re wondering? Via a local Estonian ritual in which people go to a forest crossing in the dead of night and give the Devil (Jaan Tooming) three red currants, as well as sign his big book of Very Bad Pacts. Such deals would seem weirder if not for the fact that these scraggly country folk, dressed in grungy clothes and covered in mud and ratty hair, also like to visit their cemeteries after sundown so they can hang out with the spirits of their loved ones—who appear in all-white robes and circular and/or pointed hats, and enjoy breaking bread with their relatives back at home. Except, however, for the deceased mother (Mari Abel) of luminous Liina (Rea Lest), who for reasons that have to do with an ongoing rift with her former husband, remains outside the family shed, a low-ceilinged place where people sleep alongside their barn animals.
Liina’s dad (Arvo Kukumägi) has arranged for her to be married to nasty old Endel (Sepa Tom), but she pines for young and handsome Hans (Jörgen Liik). Hans, meanwhile, has eyes for the daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of the area’s wealthy German baron (The Human Centipede’s Dieter Laser), who lives in an opulent manor run by a maid and attendant (Katariina Unt and Taavi Eelmaa) who steal from his bedridden mother and resent him as a despicable interloper. This love triangle is primarily complicated by issues of class. Also getting in the way of the trio’s knotty amour, though, is the baroness’ habit of sleepwalking her way up to the manor’s rooftop ledge every night (thus requiring someone to save her from killing herself)—not to mention Liina’s lycanthropic transformations into a wolf.
Everyone is plagued by passions of the heart in November (including a guy who, at one point, eats an entire bar of soap), as well as the plague itself—which here comes in the form of a beautiful glowing-white woman (Maria Aua) who, before transforming into a goat, tricks a man into helping her cross the stream surrounding these characters’ hamlet. To avoid certain death at the plague’s hands, town elders hatch a plan: “Take your pants off and put them on your head. The plague will think we have two arses and won’t dare to touch us.” Miraculously, this strategy works. And when the plague returns as a hog, they destroy it by tricking it into placing its hoof on a bible—after which director Sarnet provides images of blood dripping out of the side wound of the church’s Christ statue, and from the pages of the holy book itself.
This, I’m happy to report, is only some of the rampant insanity dispensed by November, which is transfixing and frequently funny in both an intentional, and an I-can’t-believe-it’s-going-this-far, sort of way. Mart Taniel’s monochromatic cinematography is all grimy black surfaces and blooming white lighting, and, when coupled with impressionistic interludes and slow-motion sequences, his visuals lend the action a sumptuous, dreamlike atmosphere. Jacaszek’s score is similarly mesmeric, full of ominous chanting, choral singing, and orchestral strings that contribute to its otherworldly mood. The result is a film that feels legitimately fantastical, and incapable of being explained in anything approaching a lucid manner.
There is a method to Sarnet’s madness, and as it proceeds towards its melancholy—and ambiguous—conclusion, November reveals itself as a portrait of the selflessness, sacrifice, violence and suffering that invariably stem from loving another. Liina and Hans are ill-fated figures, hopelessly consumed by, and yet incapable of realizing, their innermost feelings. Rather than simply treating theirs as a tragic tale, though, the film instead wends its way toward a far more complex realization: that sincere, and unselfish, love sometimes requires accepting the futility of any coveted happily-ever-after.
In its final moments, November surreally plumbs the twisted depths of desire. That it does so after providing visions of men consuming love potions made out of their own shit, sweat and armpit hairs, and of a snowman käät recounting tales of thwarted Venetian affairs as a way to inspire Hans to write his own soulful romantic poetry, marks it as a must-see import of unique inventiveness—and, yes, first-rate craziness.