November (Sarnet, 2017)

Lithuanian though I am, Estonian folklore is still quite a ways away from what I used to hear as a child. For instance, the concept of a kratt—a sentient creature made from household implements and given life by the Devil—is unfamiliar to me, so seeing one kidnap a cow and fly it over to its master at the beginning of this film was quite something. And that’s only the start of the many enticing qualities of November. Its crisp black-and-white cinematography compliments the autumnal setting and the goings on of this Estonian village, where a girl turns into a werewolf after applying a magic ointment, a boy lusts after a somnambulistic baroness, and the dead return to their families on All Souls’ Day (and then become chickens within their saunas). The supernatural cohabits with everyone, but it’s what the people do with the supernatural that makes all the difference. Here it becomes something of a game to overcome unrequited love, because the belief is that love can then overcome poverty. In the definite sense of social mobility, but nominally in that love can bring more happiness than materiality. This is especially true for Liina, who would rather give up her family’s heirlooms for Hans’ attention than keep them hidden under the floorboards forever.

Sarnet’s vision and execution are both commendable, and frequently memorable. One sequence that is sure to stick in people’s minds, apart from that lovely march of the spirits, is the Black Plague visiting the village in the form of a moaning black pig. Black Phillip from The Witch has got competition! Otherwise, I do think Sarnet loses hold of the film towards the end, particularly when Hans turns his snowman into a kratt. When he puts in hot coals for eyes, I couldn’t help mumble “Mister Police. You could have saved her. I gave you all the clues” to myself. There’s also something about the way the score turns into a modern, moody kind of orchestration that gives these scenes the air of an expensive perfume commercial. The emotions of the piece become lost in the style, which is also flattened by some strange comic relief involving a hapless lover baking his feces into a cake in the belief that it will be an aphrodisiac. And then, when it fails, he imagines raping his love interest (or he really does it—it’s hard to tell the way Sarnet frames it).

If you can’t already tell, this film is quite bizarre, in the way some of the most messed up fairy tales out there can be. Some individual moments are easy to admire, while I’m not sure I loved it as a whole. Its ambition tends to overtake itself, as there are enough subplots interlaced in here to satisfy a miniseries. That being said, I wish we had more films about Baltic folklore, because some of this stuff trumps a lot of what we get in North America. As unwieldy as this can be at times, there’s also a lot that folk horror fans will adore.