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.