November review Rea Lest Jorgen LiikYear: 2018
Director(s): Rainer Sarnet
Writer(s): Andrus Kivirahk, Rainer Sarnet
Region of Origin: Estonia

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: n/a
Digital, Black and White, 115 mins

Synopsis: The story of an 18th century Estonian village and the black magic that consumed it. (Source)

November opens with one of the most confidently bizarre sequences I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to ruin it, but as a surreal entry point, it’s a fitting testament to the ferocity of Rainer Sarnet’s Estonian folk tale. Adapted from Andrus Kivirahk’s novel, Rehepapp, Sarnet’s film is uncompromising to the very last, an irreverent blend of supernatural wonder, black humor and romanticism that oozes with atmosphere and fierce hypnotism. While it’s true that the film’s cultural identity plays a key in deciphering most of its dense mythology, it’s still an enchanting experience no matter what the viewer’s background may be. Shot in striking shades of grey, this is an otherworldly gift to those who think they’ve seen it all, boasting an ensemble of magnetic performances and profound melancholy that’s hard to shake. 

The story circles the inhabitants of an 18th century Estonian village. Picking up on the eve of All Souls Day, we’re introduced to a world in which magic, spirituality and witchcraft are a mundane occurrence. Peasants trade their souls to conjure hired help, desperate men and women visit witches to aid with romance, the Devil is taking advantage of an absentee God, and the plague is embodied in a woman who seduces those who don’t keep their guard up. Oh yeah, there’s also a hidden treasure that threatens to disrupt the balance between the poor villagers. Amidst all the commotion, is a young girl named Liina (Rea Lest), who is smitten with her neighbor Hans (Jorgen Liik). Unfortunately the emotionally distant boy has his sights set on a sleepwalking Baroness. As hidden desires are gradually made known, tragedy overtakes a small village of lost souls clinging to anything that they can. 

Trying to reduce Sarnet’s film to a simple critique seems a bit unfair. At its core, this is a sensual experience steeped in fierce spirituality and oddball sincerity. Sarnet’s film is one of extremes, pulling beauty from bleak circumstance and presenting a rich fantasy that rewards those willing to pierce its initially impenetrable veil of eccentricity. And yet, the film also isn’t an empty barrage of sensory overload, but a keen exploration of human wants, needs and frailty. In addition to being an abstract tone poem, this is also a poignant reflection of how greed, love and hate can consume and corrupt. From the ravishing visuals to a delicate balance of primal horror and scathing humor, Sarnet’s film isn’t just one thing – it’s a fantasy fable that encompasses the breadth of human nature. 

November review Jorgen LiikAmidst Sarnet’s rich world building, is an ensemble that stands their ground. As the film’s heart and soul, Rea Lest’s performance is a knockout, wielding deep anger, frustration and sadness in conjunction with hidden resilience. Lest carries the film’s emotional anchor with understated power. Jorgen Liik’s Hans is a fitting contrast, aloof and with a goofball composure, he’s a perfect portrait of a sleepwalker, blind to things that are right in front of him. The pair are flanked by a wonderfully peculiar backing cast, all of whom genuinely feel ripped from another time and place.

With it’s heavy metal logo, beautiful juxtaposition between folklore and matters of the heart, Sarnet’s film is an artful triumph. It never shies away from the sadness that sits below the surface but also celebrating the faults that make us human. Absolutely nothing is wasted here, with a heightened sense of reality in which characters make tough decisions in a losing battle. With a scope that deftly balances the limitless and the oppressively intimate, November is bound to be unlike anything else this year. Whether you come to it for a fierce fever dream that challenges with its unpredictability, or a sobering story of unrequited love and cosmic cruelty, Sarnet has turned in a film that speaks on its own wavelength, to unforgettable degree.