Late in his career, Orson Welles once rumbled in an interview that one of the keys to making a great movie was to have a great opening scene. Excellent advice; just make sure your great opening scene isn’t also your film’s best. Rainer Sarnet’s November, a surrealist fever dream reimagining of Estonian folklore, opens with such a sequence. In a wintry wasteland, a lonely kratt—a kind of Northern European golem cobbled together from odds and ends by farmers who use them for menial labor—makes its way towards an unknown stable holding a single dairy cow. Constructed from nothing but three massive scythes, several lengths of chain, and a cow’s skull, the kratt slowly pinwheels itself forward, rips the stable door open, lassoes the poor beast, and lifts itself off the ground by spinning its three blades like a helicopter. The camera zooms over the frozen countryside, barely dodging towering trees as the kratt makes its frantic way back to its master’s cabin. Plopping the cow down in front of its owner, it spits a stream of ink into his greedy face and demands more work. “Go make a ladder from bread,” the owner snarls. And once more, the three scythes pinwheel away.
This was a fantastic sequence whose beauty, strangeness, and uniqueness is rivaled only by the ingenuity through which they brought the kratt to life. It obviously wasn’t computer generated or animated with trick photography. There’s a tactile weight to its bulk, an inherent jerkiness to its movement that no Silicon Valley algorithm has cracked yet. It occupies a tangible space within the frame and within the world of the film. The kratts in November remind one of, if anything, Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion animations. But considering how these man-sized contraptions move about in the outdoors and interact with human characters in real-life, stop-motion seems unlikely. Yet still the kratts move. There is magic in this film. And nowhere is the magic more potent and realized than in this opening. The pity is that Sarnet isn’t always able to maintain it.
The plot—if it can be described as such—of November follows a love triangle between three teenagers living in nineteenth century Estonia. (We know it’s the nineteenth century because Sarnet makes the unfortunate mistake of having one of his aristocratic characters play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. I call this an unfortunate mistake because it anchors the film in a specific historical reality, a huge no-no for folklore and fairy tales.) The three teens are a lovesick peasant girl who can possess wolves, a cocksure and ambitious stable boy, and a somnambulant German baroness. However, Sarnet paces and plots his film like a folktale, stopping the action for random shaggy dog stories and narrative cul-de-sacs. In one scene, the teenagers’ village gets visited by a plague, so the elders convince the peasants to hide in a barn while wearing their pants over their heads to trick the sickness. In another the baroness’ father visits the local chapel and discovers that the peasants spit out their communion wafers after mass so they can use them as bullets for hunting. Apparently no creature can resist the power of Jesus, so host bullets never miss. Throughout the film, witches are consulted, deals with the devil are struck, marriages are planned and canceled, and the ghosts of the dead return from the grave on All Souls Day to commune and eat with their descendants.
All of this would be well and good if Sarnet managed to keep things coherent. But frequently the film becomes so enamored with its own ponderousness that it feels disjointed and unfocused. The overall effect is that November feels less like a single story than a collection of unrelated stories that somehow all feature the same characters.
But for its flaws, November is one of the more intriguing and rewarding films I’ve seen in some months. There are about a half dozen images in the film that have seared themselves into my mind: a procession of ghosts walking through a misty forest, a giant wolf rolling in a snowbank, two young people sinking down into the inky depths of a bottomless lake, a Bible used for a blasphemous ceremony dripping blood from between its pages, and above all the harsh, austere Estonian wilderness buried under blankets of frost and snow. Though flawed, November is as unique an experience as you’ll have in a theater this year.