×

Film Review: ‘October November’

Goetz Spielmann follows his superb 2008 thriller 'Revanche' with this carefully constructed and beautifully acted tale of two sisters.

With:

Nora von Waldstatten, Ursula Strauss, Peter Simonischek, Sebastian Koch, Johannes Zeiler, Andreas Ressl, Sebastian Huelk, Samuel Finzi. (German dialogue)

In his superb 2008 thriller “Revanche,” Goetz Spielmann followed his characters from the seedier streets of Vienna to a quiet rural hideaway. The Austrian filmmaker again makes resonant use of the tension between town and country, albeit to far gentler effect, in “October November,” a carefully constructed and beautifully acted tale of two very different sisters brought together when their aging father falls seriously ill. Old resentments resurface and long-kept secrets are duly excavated, but in a measured, compassionate manner that yields a persuasive and nuanced portrait of broken but not irreparable family ties. Spielmann’s storytelling remains too restrained for breakout international success, but its low-boil excellence should find a discerning arthouse audience.

Spielmann’s script takes its time introducing two women whom we eventually learn are sisters, although their lives are so different as to almost suggest otherwise. Cool, dark-haired beauty Sonja (Nora von Waldstatten) is based in Berlin, where she has an enviable career as a film and TV actress. But her busy schedule and considerable success aside, Sonja’s existence is an empty one, as suggested by her recently aborted affair with a married man (Samuel Finzi) and the chilly politeness with which she greets her adoring fans. In one of the film’s few facile constructions, her ability to slip from one role to the next indicates how unknown and unknowable she really is.

Before she left to pursue her dreams of stardom, Sonja grew up in a village in the Austrian Alps, where her parents owned and ran a large, rustic hotel. The inn has long since ceased operations but remains home to Sonja’s older sister, Verena (Ursula Strauss, “Revanche”), who spends much of her time looking after their widowed dad (Peter Simonischek). Despite her outward signs of domestic contentment — Verena has a happy, hard-working husband (Johannes Zeiler) and a sweet, well-adjusted young son (Andreas Ressl) — she, too, feels largely unfulfilled, as evidenced by her ongoing flirtation with handsome village doctor Andreas (Sebastian Koch).

Sonja and Verena are long overdue for a reunion, which is exactly what transpires after their father suffers a heart attack. Unlike the closeups and medium shots that make up the bulk of the film, the cardiac-arrest scene — in which the old man collapses, but is fortunately discovered by Verena and Andreas in time — is shot in one long take (with occasional quick, darting pans across the room) by a camera that seems to be peering down from the ceiling. It’s a visual strategy that suddenly elevates the proceedings to an almost metaphysical plane; we could almost be observing from the perspective of the father’s wayward spirit, drifting upward before finally returning to its host body, as though remembering that it still has unfinished business.

As with many a dysfunctional-family drama, that business involves both reconciliation and revelation as Sonja returns home to the hotel for a temporary stay. But “October November” never lapses into formula, and its fine-grained emotional probing couldn’t be further removed from the shrill histronics and plate-smashing recriminations of a work like “August: Osage County” (its plot similarities to which were made more pronounced by the films’ concurrent world premieres at Toronto). Although there’s a measure of unresolved bitterness on both sides, Sonja and Verena don’t hate each other, and Spielmann observes their complicated dynamic with the sort of attentiveness that deepens and clarifies everything we’ve observed about them as individuals.

Although the director allows the audience to infer a great deal from things spoken and unspoken, the key tension and difference between the two sisters is plainly stated on more than one occasion: Young, impetuous Sonja left home to pursue her career in the big city, leaving mature, responsible Verena behind to take care of the family and start one of her own, putting her own dreams on hold. That neither sister feels particularly satisfied with her lot is of little consolation, and the superbly matched actresses register a sense of shared history in every word and gesture: the jealousy that Sonja awakens in Verena by casually flirting with Andreas, or the blend of appreciation and contempt Verena feels when Sonja tries to help out with daily chores.

Meanwhile, life goes on, leaving the characters little time for the inner reflection they so badly need. Dad’s precarious health is more of a burden than ever for Verena, and complicating matters even further, she and her husband have opened the hotel’s doors to a Catholic group whose members have come to the Alps on a retreat. This latter development not only captures some of the social fabric of life in this predominantly Christian country, but adds a spiritual layer to the questions that Spielmann is posing about his characters and the lives they have chosen to lead.

Having examined and embraced its characters to the fullest, the film lets the family’s skeletons slide almost casually out of the closet; once snapped into place, this final puzzle piece makes sense of the sisters’ fractious dynamic but can scarcely account for it in all its vivid human complexity. And in the end, as so often happens in families, all individual wounds are sutured — at least briefly — by the burden of caring for a gravely ill loved one, a process that Spielmann plays out with great tenderness and unhurried patience in the film’s tremendously moving final reels.

The actors never put a foot wrong. Von Waldstatten slowly peels back Sonja’s brittle layers, exposing the private pain beneath her worldly accomplishments, while Strauss reveals a similar strain of quiet discontent beneath her busy, down-to-earth hausfrau. Craft contributions are excellent, not least d.p. Martin Gschlacht’s scenic lensing of the mountainous Austrian countryside and the terrific hotel set (courtesy of production designers Katharina Woeppermann and Susanne Hopf), its cavernous dining hall and excess of bedrooms providing a suitably ghostly backdrop for this study of spiritual and emotional isolation.

Film Review: 'October November'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 14, 2013. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival.) Running time: 114 MIN. Original title: "Oktober November"

Production:

(Austria) An Oesterreichisches Filminstitut, Filmstandort Austria, Filmfonds Wien, Land Niederoesterreich presentation, in cooperation with ORF, Film/Fernsehabkommen, of a production with Coop99 and SpielmannFilm. Produced by Martin Gschlacht, Antonin Svoboda, Bruno Wagner, Goetz Spielmann.

Crew:

Directed, written by Goetz Spielmann. Camera (color), Martin Gschlacht; editor, Karina Ressler; production designers, Katharina Woeppermann, Susanne Hopf; costume designer, Erika Navas; sound, Heinz K. Ebner, Uve Haussig, Bernhard Maisch; sound designer, Bernhard Bamberger; assistant director, Katharina Biro; casting, Lisa Olah.

With:

Nora von Waldstatten, Ursula Strauss, Peter Simonischek, Sebastian Koch, Johannes Zeiler, Andreas Ressl, Sebastian Huelk, Samuel Finzi. (German dialogue)

More Film

  • Stuber

    ‘Stuber’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Twentieth Century Fox claims the top spot in spending with “Stuber.” Ads placed for the comedy had an estimated media value of $4.91 million through Sunday for 1,325 national ad airings on 42 networks. [...]

  • BTS - J-Hope, V, Jungkook, Jimin,

    BTS' 'Bring the Soul: The Movie' Gets Global Theatrical Release

    BTS will be back on the big screen this summer. The Korean pop group announced today that their latest feature film, “Bring the Soul: The Movie,” will have a global release on August 7. It arrives just six and a half months after the septet’s last film release, “Love Yourself in Seoul.” “Bring the Soul” [...]

  • Box Office: 'Yesterday' Movie Takes on

    Box Office: 'Annabelle Comes Home' and 'Yesterday' Take on 'Toy Story 4'

    The weekend box office has gone to the dolls. “Annabelle Comes Home,” a supernatural horror film about a possessed toy, is facing off against another band of plastic figurines: “Toy Story 4.” Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” is expected to dominate box office charts again over newcomers “Annabelle Comes Home” and “Yesterday,” a fantasy musical set [...]

  • 'The Current War' Trailer: Benedict Cumberbatch,

    Benedict Cumberbatch and Nicholas Hoult Feud in 'The Current War' Trailer (Watch)

    101 Studios has released an official new trailer for the Martin Scorcese-produced thriller, “The Current War,”  offering a glimpse into the dramatic 19th century battle over electricity that became known as the “war of the currents.” The film, which is a dramatization of real-life events, will follow the tumultuous journey of Thomas Edison, played by [...]

  • Ford v Ferrari

    Oscars: 31 Upcoming Films That Could Enter the Awards Race

    The year reaches the halfway mark on June 30, and traditionally films from the first six months have an uphill battle in the Oscar race. However, this year’s January-June crop might get a boost from the accelerated schedule: Nominations voting is a tight Jan. 2-Jan. 7, 2020. So if voters start their homework now, early [...]

  • Yesterday Movie Danny Boyle

    Danny Boyle on 'Yesterday,' Leaving 'Bond 25' and Why the Beatles Still Rock

    Danny Boyle would like to reintroduce you to the Beatles. The iconic foursome certainly needs no introduction, but in his movie “Yesterday,” which debuts June 28, the director envisions a word where nobody has heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo. That is, nobody besides Jack Malik. When the struggling songwriter, portrayed by newcomer Himesh [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content