Director: Greg Harrison US. 2004. 78mins.
Screening in Dramatic Competition at Sundance, November is a psychological thriller that jolts the brain but has more trouble tugging the heartstrings. Exploring how subjective our memory becomes, particularly in the aftermath of trauma, this low-budget film challenges its audience to sort out fact from fiction, reality from fractured mind-state. Although its conclusion pulls all the fragments together in a revelation that feels truly earned, rather than forced or bolted on, its effect would be that much more powerful were the performances more emotionally persuasive. With a running length of just 78 minutes, this is one of those rare films where one wishes for more time to allow the characters to establish themselves in order to win our engagement.
The opening images - flash frames of shattered glass, flecks of blood - make it chillingly clear that something terrible is about to happen - or has happened. They also announce another evolution in the use of digital filmmaking technology. The latest in a line of DV features from InDigEnt, the same co-operative responsible for previous Sundance successes such as Tadpole, Personal Velocity and Pieces Of April, November makes the best case yet that the distinctions between what is film and what is video is now irrelevant. If anything, the aesthetic here is enhanced by DV, rather than short-changed by it.
Whether November will match those films in terms of commercial impact, remains a more open question. Even with Friends star Courteney Cox in the lead role, the overall sensation is that of an intellectual exercise - and one not particularly helped by the emotional parameters of her performance. But even a full-blooded performance would not elevate this film beyond a small subset of Cox's enormous core fan-group. Still, given its minimalist budget and shooting schedule - $150,000, 15 days - assessing its mainstream appeal seems moot. Broadly speaking: geeks will love it, and love puzzling over the abstractions of its clever construct, while cineastes will enjoy references near and far, from Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder to Roeg's Don't Look Now to Renais' Last Year At Marienbad. But will their dates'
The story hinges around a pivotal moment in the life of a seemingly happy couple: returning home from dinner, they pull over at a convenience store. The man goes in the store, the woman stays behind the steering wheel, fiddling with the radio. A low-life enters the store, robs the cashier and then starts shooting. When next seen, Sophie (Cox) is pushing uselessly at an elevator button. She's on her way up to see a shrink. The expectation is that she is coping with the trauma of Hugh's murder but intriguingly her issues predate the shooting. Sophie had a brief encounter with a colleague at the art college where she teaches photography and is consumed with guilt. Back home, her life is crashing to pieces, like the framed prints of her photographs that fall from her apartment walls. And then Hugh starts calling on the telephone.
Director Greg Harrison, who also edited the film, does a fine job piecing together three elliptical acts each titled 'November 07, and dealing in turn with issues of denial, guilt and acceptance (to say more would be to give away the whole conceit). The attention to the technicalities of memory retrieval - was Corpse X on the left and Corpse Y on the right' Or vice versa' - is certainly intriguing. And some of the cinematic and narrative flourishes bubble up in hindsight: an out-of-service elevator becomes a metaphor for striving to reach different levels of consciousness, heaven even. But they also divert attention from the heart of the picture. There isn't the emotional weight to balance its mental prowess. In the pivotal roles, Cox doesn't reach the pitch Sophie demands while Le Gros is inert, a consequence of repeatedly asking his co-star: 'How are you feeling''
Beyond Harrison, November has another star-making turn in its director of photography Nancy Schreiber, who gives the film a rich and vibrant palette. It's an unquestionable leap forward in terms of digital cinema, and a perfect demonstration of why sound is half of the filmmaking process. The soundscape is flat-out brilliant: the weaponry of the horror genre - sudden sharp sounds and forbidding rumblings - are used here in seemingly benign moments, but their full value is terrifying revealed at the end. The brain-teasing element could well pay dividends for word-of-mouth - not to mention a healthy life on DVD. Remember Memento.
Production cos:IFC Productions, InDigEnt, Map Point Pictures
International sales: Cinetic Media
Executive producers: Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, John Sloss
Producers: Danielle Renfrew, Gary Winick, Jake Abraham
Screenplay: Benjamin Brand
Cinematography: Nancy Schreiber
Editor: Greg Harrison
Production design: Tracey Gallagher
Music: Lew Baldwin
Main cast: Courteney Cox, James Le Gros, Michael Ealy, Nora Dunn, Anne Archer