A three-legged stick creature, clumsily dragging a cow’s skull, somersaults through a pastoral landscape. It chains up and flies off with a cow and, landing at its human master’s abode, squawks threateningly, through a hole in its bark: “Put me to work.”
The stick monster is one such “kratt,” or man-made invention that, when granted with a human soul, can steal livestock, food or other necessities for various farmhands, in rural 19th-century Estonia. Throughout Rainer Sarnet’s bone-chilling, hallucinatory tour de force November — adapted by him and Andrus Kivirähk from the latter’s novel — the kratts take on several forms and roles. They are helpers, scapegoats (it’s easy to pin thefts of antiques on them), and even advice givers in matters of love.
And at its heart, November is a familiar love story, in which young Liina (Rea Lest) pines for Hans (Jorgen Liik) — a fellow laic who sort of looks like her — while he lusts for a German baroness. The movie isn’t exactly fresh: There are elements borrowed from fairy tales — witches, ghosts, toothless hags, unwanted arranged marriages, the foolhardy bartering of goods — as well as kabuki theater (plenty of shrieking, face-painted ghouls here) and religious iconography. But unlike, say, Guillermo del Toro, who simply pits good vs. evil in his dark fantasies, Sarnet and Kivirähk imbue their wretched characters with subtlety. Even the “good” characters are pigheaded and impulsive, some of them downright bestial.
Above all else, November, shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Mart Taniel, is a smorgasbord of deliciously grotesque imagery. Berries ooze blood; a hobo eats a whole bar of soap; a sprite hocks phlegm directly onto the camera. But the most lasting shot is the stuff of heavenly dreams: a moonlit, fog-laden wide shot of a rooftop sleepwalk.
Directed by Rainer Sarnet
Opens February 23, Village East Cinema